'Sound of Music' -- and Carrie Underwood -- largely a success

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Ariane Rinehart, left, as Liesl, Carrie Underwood as

Ariane Rinehart, left, as Liesl, Carrie Underwood as Maria, Joe West as Kurt, Sophia Anne-Caruso as Brigitta, and Michael Nigro as Friedrich. Photo Credit: Paul Drinkwater/NBC

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Verne Gay Verne Gay

Gay is the television critic.

Now we know what we always kind of suspected anyway: Carrie Underwood can't act.

But she can sing, and she is a luminous stage presence who had the guts to take on one of the most iconic roles of the stage (Mary Martin, 1959) or screen (Julie You-Know-Who, 1965).

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Underwood, in the role of Maria, didn't entirely succeed -- acting is part of the bargain, after all. But NBC's live version of Richard Rodgers' and Oscar Hammerstein's beloved musical, staged at Grumman Studios in Bethpage, largely did. This was a gamble that paid off, though probably a puzzle to fans of one of the most beloved films in history. Once they realized this wasn't a knock-off of Robert Wise's Oscar-winning classic -- but a genuine stage version, with plenty of differences and departures -- that probably helped too.

Very little -- make that nothing -- had anything to do with the movie. But get past that fact, and viewers saw some first-rate stage actors bring this thing to life. They included Audra McDonald (Mother Abbess); Christian Borle (Max Detweiler), and Laura Benanti as Elsa Schrader (Eleanor Parker played "The Baroness" in the film.) Stephen Moyer, of HBO's "True Blood," was Von Trapp, but a veteran of the stage too. "The Sound of Music Live!" was expertly directly by Beth McCarthy-Miller and Rob Ashford, and it's important to note that a live TV event like this hasn't been directed on NBC in probably half a century.

As Maria, Underwood was the major draw here. She pounded out some numbers -- "The Sound of Music," the opener for the ages here staged in a dark woods that evoked the haunted forest from "The Wizard of Oz" -- and tried to finesse others. But her instincts were to belt 'em out. The pros, like Benanti and McDonald, got their songs right, which tended to make Underwood's numbers seem more wooden.

But again, if not quite a triumph, a success. NBC had a winner Thursday night.

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