With all of the misery in the world—much of it directed at our most precious resource, be that bullying, kidnapping, all manner of abuse, enforced conscription, errant bombings—how absolutely refreshing, invigorating and just downright fun to see the Trapp family children steal the show from the adults in Donna Feore’s emotion-driven production of The Sound of Music.
Truly one of the Western world’s most beloved musicals of all time—with a playlist that is the envy of composers, directors and producers alike—here’s a show that ought not to have a single empty seat and most likely will require an extended run.
True enough, the usual problems with staging music theatre in a non-purposed venue such as the Festival Theatre showed up like unwelcome guests: the invisible orchestra, heroically led in the cloud by Barbara Burton along with the always dreaded—largely unnecessary: this cast can sing, support and project—body microphones, which assaulted the ear much more than delighted it. Both of these elements combined to produce the usual results. In the early going the close-but-no-cigar ensemble and ragged diction were the unintended hallmarks of the nuns’ “Preludium”; almost three hours later, the final “dream” (“Climb Every Mountain”) also lacked unanimity, maddeningly bringing the challenge stemming from the lack of face-to-face music making full circle.
Nonetheless, the first instance of the title song warmed the crowd immediately, soon followed by a rousing chorus of “Maria” (much of the entire book—Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse—concerns just how to solve the music-loving candidate for God’s service—who hadn’t counted on falling in love—dilemma of devotion), then the first of many welcome appearances of the famous list, “My Favourite Things,” before the ode to self-affirmation, “I Have Confidence” completes the opening set.
Taken up to there, this production readily found itself in the very good if not great category. But, from the very first measures of “Do-Re-Mi” that assessment, happily, fell by the wayside.
Here was the ideal artistic storm of highly engaging music/lyrics (imagine—as some of the younger audience members must have—hearing this clever and delightful celebration of the scale for the first time!), absolutely spectacular in the best sense of the word, expertly staged and choreographed by Feore (who always manages to assess her troupe then devise creative ways and means to play to their strengths and mask any weaknesses). The effect (as it would be every time the youngest members of the cast did their thing—notably “The Lonely Goatherd” and “So Long, Farewell”) was overflowing with enthusiasm, joy and verve as the “children” gave the adults on both sides of the proverbial footlights wave after magical wave of the best parts of human experience.
As Maria, and in her Stratford début, Stephanie Rothenberg proved to be the ideal catalyst, eagerly and engagingly linking all of the players together. As these performances continue, no doubt, her range of characterization will grow. Ben Carlson was in top form playing the widower Captain von Trapp whether whistling up a storm as He Who Must Be Obeyed or offering one of the most moving renditions of “Edelweiss” yet heard. (And what a wonderfully cohesive touch indeed to bring back the whistle as the sudden Nazis searched in vain for the man of principle.) The principals’ turn around the floor during “Ländler” was beautifully understated and filled with poignancy—effortlessly shifting from “how to” to “I do.”
From a purely vocal point of view, Anita Krause was nothing short of superb in her two offerings of “Climb Every Mountain.” Yet by singing the first of those more to the enraptured audience than Maria, the dramatic effect of the lyrics was oddly trumped by a few moments in a recital hall.
Initially, the in-between scene antics of the Schuhplatter Dancers (Matt Alfano, Matthew Armet, Chad McFadden and Jason Sermonia) had more function than form, but the payoff during their acrobatic, bum-as-drum appearance during the competition must surely find a place of honour in the Comedy Hall of Fame.
Here’s to a successful run for The Sound of Music even with the tantalizing thought of what could have been with the same cast and crew in a performance space suitable for their considerable talents. JWR