Sunday, December 8, 2013

The Hills Are...Live

I don't know if I've ever talked about it much on here before, but I'm a big Sound of Music aficionado. Not only has the film been my favorite movie since early childhood, but I know the stage show and its production history backwards and forwards—I own several cast recordings (including a couple in foreign languages), a well-thumbed complete vocal score and some vintage theatre programs from the original productions. I've followed recent years' revivals from afar, online; I've seen one very small local production and squinted at blurry, muffled bootleg videos of professional productions where the talent and magic still leaped right off the computer screen.

So you can imagine when I heard there was to be a live production broadcast on TV, I was pretty delighted. I was a little disappointed when casting was announced, since I naturally had a few ideas of my own about who should be in it, but still, I was not about to miss a live TV production of my favorite musical for anything. I was determined to reserve judgment at least until intermission.

I think I had a little advantage going into it in that I'm not familiar with Carrie Underwood's other work, so I could appraise her performance from a neutral point of view, so to speak. I'm not crazy about celebrity casting, but if she could pull it off, I was perfectly willing to say "good for her." But to be honest, I don't think her performance as Maria was one of the show's strong points. She looked lovely, and she can sing (though I did squirm a bit at the way she belted a few of the upper notes), and she obviously put a valiant effort into it, but her acting wasn't in the same league as the rest of the cast. She didn't bring out the spontaneous, energetic, sometimes tomboyishly awkward element of Maria's character, which is really what's supposed to carry much of the show. On the other hand, I never really warmed to Stephen Moyer's Captain von Trapp either. He seemed very keyed-up and edgy; I think that's just the way he chose to play the character, and it didn't really work for me.

But the supporting cast—wow! I'd seen Audra McDonald perform before, so I knew she'd be good, but I had no idea she would be that good. She was in command of every scene she appeared in, and her "Climb Ev'ry Mountain" was simply phenomenal. I've never seen or heard the song performed with such power and emotion before. That is what the song is meant to be at this turning point in the story; that is why it's such a wonderful song. Likewise, Max (Christian Borle) and Elsa (Laura Benanti) were both excellent. They really brought their characters to life; their scenes were polished, witty and entertaining. (I think it says something that the song everyone in my family has been humming around the house is "How Can Love Survive?")

The children I thought were best as an ensemble. In the stage show they have just one or two lines apiece, and it depends on casting and personality which ones pull them off well and steal a moment or two. This time it was definitely Marta (Grace Rundhaug). Her entry in the thunderstorm scene was probably the single funniest moment in the whole show! Kurt (Joe West) was good too. And honestly, I thought that Frau Schmidt the housekeeper (Kristine Neilson) completely stole all of her scenes. (When my dog started barking at the beginning of the scene in Maria's bedroom, I was thinking, "Be quiet, Bär, I want to hear Frau Schmidt"—perhaps a musical theatre first.) There were a couple bits of miscasting among the supporting players. Michael Campayano seemed too mature for the part of Rolf—it's kind of an important point to the character that Rolf is supposed to be just a kid, too, and he just didn't come across that way. And a combination of miscasting and poor costume choice made Herr Zeller look more like the mafia than a German officer—a giant incongruity every time he barged on stage! On the other hand, the small role of Admiral von Schreiber was perfectly cast.

The sets were simply gorgeous, especially the interior of the villa and the candlelit corridors of the abbey, and the way the action flowed from one set to another was really neat. A brilliant bit of inspiration was the staging of the children's little scene before the party in Maria's bedroom, with the camera sleight-of-hand making it seem that Liesl was looking down on the terrace from an upstairs window. The only staging I found a little disappointing was the children's choreography for "Do-Re-Mi" and "So Long, Farewell," which was rather static and unimaginative.

Bad decisions: Too many commercials during Act II. Maria's hairstyle and costumes in Act II. Wise decisions: Not trying to add "I Have Confidence," a difficult song to sing and to pull off on stage. And not attempting the "Julie Andrews twirl," which is also tricky to do on stage without it looking awkward.

So do I think it was a good show? Yes. Do I think it could have been better? Yes. It's unfortunate when the weakest links in a cast are the two leads—when you find yourself looking forward to the next scene the stronger supporting players appear in. It was great to see The Sound of Music on TV and produced so beautifully; I enjoyed watching it very much; but I couldn't help the thought in the back of my mind that it could have been near-perfect with different casting of Maria and the Captain.

So there you have it, the opinion of the world's pickiest Sound of Music fan. Did anyone else watch? What did you think?
image credits: one, two, three


Hamlette said...

I didn't get to see it (we have a TV but don't have it hooked up to an antenna or cable or dish), but my mom watched it and quite enjoyed it.

"The Sound of Music" is the first movie we owned as a family, and the only one we had for probably 5 years. It was a taped-off-TV version with all the commercials still there, and when I watch my DVD copy now, I still can tell you where the commercials should be, which little bits were cut out to shorten it, and sometimes even what commercial would come next! We watched it over and over and over. So I love it dearly :-)

Elisabeth Grace Foley said...

Similar case—our first copy of the movie was the two-VHS silver anniversary edition, which had a short making-of featurette and trailers for the other Rodgers & Hammerstein movie musicals at the beginning. I can still remember almost every word of the narration and what clips were showed! :)

Rei Michelle said...

Yeah, I watched it, too. I know I've seen the Julie Andrews movie, but it's been a very long time since I've watched it so I didn't remember the specifics of the show.

I remember watching Carrie Underwood on American Idol and I've seen her perform on TV here and there. She has a powerful voice and I think she sang it well, though her acting wasn't as strong as it needed to be.

But yeah, loved Audra McDonald, Christian Borle, and Laura Benanti. Loved the sets, too, and that NBC even bothered to put a live musical on TV at all.

Sarah Holman said...

I loved it! I thought Carrie Underwood brought a sweetness to the role that was refreshing. Loved the kids! I can't wait to get it on DVD.

Anonymous said...

Exactly! I don't think that the girl who played Gretl managed to pull off her part very well, either. She just wasn't (no offense to her!) made for the part.

Hannah Scheele said...

I've only seen Youtube clips of it so far, but it looked interesting and enjoyable. It's fun to see a remake and the songs are just awesome. I'm not surprised Carrie wasn't the best actress in the cast, and your comments about the guy playing Captain Von Trapp make me even more curious than I was before!