While critics have often been unkind to The Sound of Music, audiences adore the tuneful travails of postulant Maria Rainer and the von Trapp family as much as they do their iconic songs. “My Favorite Things,” “Do-Re-Mi” and “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” remain standards 56 years after the original opening night, yet the show has enjoyed only one Broadway revival (a year-long run in 1998). Three-time Tony-winning director Jack O’Brien is now hoping to change that with a new production starting its national tour at Los Angeles’ Ahmanson Theatre, which minimizes the cloying nature of the material, and will leave fans humming to themselves as they exit the theater.
Premiering in 1959, The Sound of Music was the final collaboration between Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, who died of stomach cancer a few months later (“Edelweiss” was the last song he wrote). The musical won five Tonys and closed after 1,443 performances. By the time the 1965 movie came out, times were changing. Rock ‘n’ roll was mainstream and the idea of a saccharine widescreen musical featuring Julie Andrews trilling from a mountaintop seemed a bit corny. Pauline Kael called it a “sugar-coated lie,” and even Christopher Plummer, who played Captain von Trapp, famously referred to it as “the sound of mucus.” But it still went on to collect five Oscars and has become an enduring screen classic, spawning NBC’s 2013 live version with Carrie Underwood and an anniversary tribute sung by Lady Gaga at this year’s Academy Awards.
Director Robert Wise called on Ernest Lehman, with whom he had just collaborated on West Side Story, to write the screenplay, resulting in a nearly 3-hour running time. For his revival, O’Brien returns to the original book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, delivering a streamlined version that clocks in a good half-hour shorter.
The new revival begins not on a mountaintop, but in the Nonnberg Abbey, with a prelude sung in Latin beneath a stained-glass window. O’Brien stages his abbey scenes in an area confined by tatted lace dividers and a gothic arch, a cloistered contrast to the vibrant von Trapp home where Maria will soon be ensconced. But first, we meet her on a mountain trail, leaning against a wooden rail, the pink and blue-tinted Alps sprawling behind her.
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After an exhaustive casting search, ingenue Kerstin Anderson was plucked from obscurity to play Maria; a few months ago, she was a sophomore at Pace College in New York. Opening-night jitters were evident as she sang the title song, but as the night wore on, Anderson found her footing. Her crisp, clear soprano voice isn’t the strongest in the cast (that would be former Broadway Mary Poppins Ashley Brown as the Mother Abbess), but Anderson makes a fine fit for the tricky role.
How do you solve a problem like Maria, who seems too kind and sweet for words? With The Sound of Music’s hyperbolic tone, an actor could hardly choose to underplay. So then how does one keep from tipping into excess? Anderson solves this problem as Andrews did, by focusing on what makes the show great — its songs. After years of producing classics like Oklahoma!, South Pacific and The King and I, Rodgers and Hammerstein were at the peak of their creative powers composing songs like “Do-Re-Mi” and “My Favorite Things.” Sure, you’ve heard the latter a thousand times, but if you lend it a fresh ear, there’s no denying the clever poetry of the lyric and its infectious three-quarter time. When Anderson is center stage, the show levitates no matter how unrealistically flawless her character might be.
She is given a strong assist by Ben Davis as Captain von Trapp, and Brown as Mother Abbess. A musical theater veteran, Davis portrays von Trapp more as a grieving widow than a mindless martinet, making his character more relatable. His rendition of “Edelweiss” in the face of Nazi oppression registers warmly in the singer’s resounding baritone voice. The Mother Abbess is only given a couple of scenes, which are mainly of the doting-hen variety. But she delivers one of the show’s most memorable tunes, the inspirational anthem “Climb Ev’ry Mountain,” in her soul-lifting operatic mezzo soprano voice.
Merwin Foard nearly steals every scene he’s in as cynical fop Max Detweiler, an impresario of irrepressible wit. Teamed with Teri Hansen as the wealthy Elsa Schraeder, who means to marry von Trapp, the pair provides the evening’s comic relief with clever and acerbic songs like “How Can Love Survive?” and “No Way To Stop It.”
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The children are as cute and on-key as they ought to be, with newbie Paige Silvester making a fine impression as confused adolescent Liesl; she demonstrates a light soprano voice in her duet with Rolf (Dan Tracy), “Sixteen Going on Seventeen.”
Veteran scenic designer Douglas W. Schmidt conjures breathtaking alpine vistas, including an imposing nighttime view of Salzburg in the show’s final scene. And his design for the von Trapp family home is bright and airy, though the furnishings are kept conspicuously sparse to make space for the show’s numerous ensemble numbers.
As Orpheus saved Eurydice, Maria uses song to rescue von Trapp and his children from their gloomy rule-bound existence. And in the end, their song is what saves them from the Nazis. Sure, it’s easy to roll your eyes at The Sound of Music. But at its heart the musical is an unabashed paean to the healing power of art.
Cast: Kerstin Anderson, Ben Davis, Ashley Brown, Merwin Foard, Teri Hansen, Carey Rebecca Brown, Julia Osborne, Elisabeth Evans, Darren Matthias, Donna Garner, Paige Silvester, Erich Schuett, Maria Knasel, Quinn Erickson, Svea Johnson, Mackenzie Currie, Audrey Bennett, Kyla Carter, Dan Tracy, Andrea Ross, Brent Schindele, Ronald L. Brown, Kelly McCormick, Jenavene Hester, Christopher Carl
Director: Jack O’Brien
Book: Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse
Music and Lyrics: Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II
Set designer: Douglas W. Schmidt
Costume designer: Jane Greenwood
Lighting designer: Natasha Katz
Sound designer: Ken Travis
Orchestrations: Robert Russell Bennett
Dance & vocal arrangements: Trude Rittman
Music supervisor: Andy Einhorn
Music director: Jay Alger
Choreographer: Danny Melford
Presented by Grove Entertainment, Ted Chapin