THE SOUND OF MUSIC (National Tour at the Academy of Music): Politics gets its song

Excerpted by kind permission from Neals Paper

Do, Re, Mi." Kerstin Anderson as 'Maria Rainer' and the von Trapp children (from left clockwise) - Audrey Bennett (Gretl), Maria Suzanne Knasel (Louisa), Mackenzie Currie (Marta), Paige Silvester (Liesl), Svea Elizabeth Johnson (Brigitta), Erich Schuett (Friedrich), Quinn Erickson (Kurt). Photo by Matthew Murphy
Do, Re, Mi.” Kerstin Anderson as ‘Maria Rainer’ and the von Trapp children (from left clockwise) – Audrey Bennett (Gretl), Maria Suzanne Knasel (Louisa), Mackenzie Currie (Marta), Paige Silvester (Liesl), Svea Elizabeth Johnson (Brigitta), Erich Schuett (Friedrich), Quinn Erickson (Kurt). Photo by Matthew Murphy

THE SOUND OF MUSIC is a warhorse that has been brushed and festooned in ways that belie its age, familiarity, and expectation. The fear is always that the play will be sappy and forgo all of the elements that might give it texture to become a songfest featuring children. Director Jack O’Brien does not fall into that trap—no surprise to anyone who has seen his sterling work over the past 40 years, from the Houston Opera Porgy and Bess to Kevin Kline’s Henry IV, to Hairspray.

O’Brien weaves the children neatly into a total show that gives proper attention to the 1938 Anschluss that is about to turn neutral Austria into a Third Reich annex—a move that involves the resistant, repulsed Captain von Trapp, and propels his family of seven children into world politics. Rather than go with the 1965 movie script so beloved to so many, O’Brien illuminates Howard Lindsay and Russell Crouse’s original Broadway text, leaving songs where Rodgers, Hammerstein, Lindsay, and Crouse intended them and keeping “No Way to Stop It” and “How Can Love Survive”” in place to vary and sophisticate the score. (O’Brien does choose “Something Good” in lieu of “An Ordinary Couple,” a good choice among two unusually mediocre compositions.)

Because O’Brien has been all inclusive and careful about presenting all that is THE SOUND OF MUSIC, the Nazi threat informs the production from the beginning when Herr Zeller comes to inquire why the von Trapp home is not flying the red Swastika flag. O’Brien supplies entertainment with texture. The children become more important when they are integral participants in an entirely established world instead of being the center of it.

O’Brien’s tone is serious while offering the sweep and diversion of musical theater; he provides all that has made this Rodgers and Hammerstein piece a favorite while endowing it with weight and texture.

The touring cast helps markedly in this, especially Ben Davis, who is a pillar of rectitude as von Trapp but also a man who can relax in his home among his guests, learn to accept his children without resenting the death of their mother, respond with both surprise and good nature at his feelings for Maria, and deal with the Reich powers in a a forthright and resigned manner. Davis’s rich baritone voice enlivens and gives texture to every number in which he’s included, but the Captain’s is not primarily a singing role. It is the variety and excellence Davis displays as an actor that gives O’Brien’s ideas their core.

Kersten Anderson as Maria. Photo by Matthew M
Kerstin Anderson as Maria. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Of course, the focal character is THE SOUND OF MUSIC is Maria. The role that will forever be associated with Julie Andrews, who played it so beautifully in the movie. Kerstin Anderson is a different kind of Maria. Her take on the role in just as legitimate and accurate, but Anderson emphasizes more of Maria’s youth and greenness. Her lack of assurance and absence of proper etiquette freshens the part.

Anderson particularly comes alive when she sings. She has a thrilling, expressive voice that lets you know a lot about Maria every time it’s raised in song. While “thrilling voices” are the subject, it’s time to mention Melody Betts, who can affect you viscerally and emotionally as she uses her arresting and moving contralto to sing “Climb Every Mountain.” Betts’s voice more than makes us for her flat, unconvincing line readings as an actress.

In supporting roles, reliable Merwin Foard comes through blazing again as a droll, opportunistic Max Detweiler while Teri Hansen conveys the CEO side of Elsa, a woman whose competence for once outweighs her elegance.

Because O’Brien has put equal emphasis on the political side of THE SOUND OF MUSIC, characters that are barely noticed in most productions have more to do and must give fuller performances. Darren Matthias, as the von Trapp butler, is quite good; the butler does his job with efficiency and diplomacy while indicating his cooperation with or resignation toward Reich sympathizers in Nürnberg. Donna Garner enhances the strong impression she made a few seasons back in Once by giving Frau Schmidt, the housekeeper, an integral part in the von Trapp household and O’Brien’s staging. Her Schmidt is indifferent about the Nazis and will go along with whatever happens for convenience, or until, as Max says, all blows over, while doing her job for the von Trapps.

All of the children in this touring production have merit. Two stand out, Quinn Erickson as Kurt, who is so intent on being a gentleman and who has a voice that impresses in ensemble, and Svea Elizabeth Johnson, who makes her mark as a pesky and wise Brigitta. Paige Silvester is lovely as Liesl. She and the estimable Dan Tracy make a nice change-of-pace motif of “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” while O’Brien shrewdly has Maria walk past the cavorting Liesl and Rolf in a way that influences the governess’s relationship with the senior among the von Trapp children.

Liesl’s romance with Rolf is played down to make room for other matters in this production. O’Brien’s choice on this point strengthens the overall production and impression of THE SOUND OF MUSIC. Douglas W. Schmidt’s set in alternatively gorgeous and utilitarian. The ubiquitous Alp in the background seems simultaneously treacherous and inviting. Jane Greenwood’s costumes are as expected, but she chose a particularly outlandish curtain pattern for the children’s playclothes. Natasha Katz’s lighting presents excellent contrast between the dark convent interior that has one stream of light coming through and the opulent patio with the view of the Alps on the von Trapp estate. Read more on Neals Paper >>

[Academy of Music, 240 S. Broad Street] March 15-20, 2016;

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