It is 1938, and Europe is settling down to dream the worst nightmare in human history. Georg von Trapp (George Dvorsky), an Austrian hero of the Great War, has lost his wife, and is about to lose his country. He marshals his seven motherless children about in military order, outfitting them in sailor’s costumes (by Jamie Bland and Seth Gilbert) and directing them through the medium of a bosun’s whistle. He is also applying military discipline to his own heart, instructing it to welcome Frau Schraeder (Jenna Sokolowski) into his life, as his new wife and mother to his children. She is clever and beautiful, and he loves her not one whit.
The Sound of Music is as much an American Standard as any play about Europeans can hope to be; the story of how Maria Rainer (Jessica Lauren Ball), a postulant nun at the Nonnberg Abbey, got herself posted as a governess to the formidable family of Baron von Trapp, and fell successively in love with the children and the Baron, has become part of our mythology. We know the Rodgers & Hammerstein, Lindsay & Crouse creation like we know the fairy tales of our childhood: Maria, a bit too full of the improvisational spirit to achieve the religious vocation to which she aspires, is assigned by the wise Mother Abbess (Tracy Lynn Olivera, in the production I saw) to a detail as governess to the Baron’s children. They have been condemned to joyless routine by their grief-stricken father, but she takes them in hand and insists that they have fun – particularly, the kind that you have singing.
It takes a bit for von Trapp to regain his own sense of joy, but as he does, the starch in his character begins to drain off, and so does his sense of gloom and resignation. His friend Max Detweiler (Bobby Smith) and his fiancée urge him to accept the inevitable absorption of his beloved country by Nazi Germany, but he will not. He and Frau Schraeder disjoin over the issue and he sees that Maria is his true love; he and Maria marry and together with the army of children they climb through the Austrian Alps and escape the Nazis.
Well. A story like that cannot reasonably be expected to be subject to interpretation, particularly in light of the fact that it is so song-heavy. (Because the von Trapps are singers, and this is a story in part about how they learned to sing, there are several songs which are only tangentially connected with the plot). The current revival at Olney Theatre Center squarely conforms to the music and the text. That is to say, it is full of pleasures.
The principal pleasure is the voices, which embrace Richard Rodgers’ key-shifting score vigorously, and with great understanding. Ball, buoyant as a cork in a sea of champagne, graces the music with a surprisingly conversational pace, so that Maria’s singing seems phrased almost like dialogue. The von Trapp kids (there are two casts; in the production I saw they were Maggie Donovan, Ari Goldbloom-Helzner, Carolyn Youstra, Jake Foster, Ella Gatlin, Heidi Kaplin and Sydney Maloney) are pleasingly sweet and light, and the holy nuns (Oliveri, Donna Migliaccio, Maria Egler, and Christine Lacey) are luminous.
Musical director Chris Youstra, an old hand at this, moves around the score with great certainty, and the pocket-sized orchestra (Patricia Wnek, S. Craig Taylor, Patrick Plunk, David Blackstone, Kristen Jepperson, Alex Aucoin and Youstra) gives out a big sound.
The great test of any production of this musical is how the Mother Abbess does “Climb Ev’ry Mountain,” the roof-raising, show stopping first-Act closer. “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” is beyond the reach of most musical-comedy singers; it requires an operatic soprano. Olivera sings it as well as I have ever heard it done. In her hands, and vocal chords, the song soars like a rocket, bursts into colors, and dances against the shimmering sky. Hammerstein’s decidedly non-religious song about following your dream becomes, in Olivera’s iteration, a call to grace. It sounds like a directive from God. And the thing is this: in the show I saw, Olivera was a substitute for Channez McQuay, who was unable to perform due to a sore throat); McQuay was herself a substitute for Monica Lijewski, who was injured during rehearsal. If the second understudy sounds like Olivera, I can only assume that Lijewski’s version would make the dead come to life. McQuay will return to the role this week.
As is often the case with musicals which are mostly music, the acting here is frequently pretty broad, but there are some folks who do interesting things with their roles. Frau Schraeder, a successful business executive, is usually played cold and calculating, but Sokolowski and director Mark Waldrop imbue her with great warmth and good humor, so that we feel a sense of loss when she walks sadly out into the night. Max is ready to play footsie with the Nazis for his own personal advancement as they scheme to take over his country. But Bobby Smith is congenitally charming, and his sweetness – particularly playing off the kids – helps to make the play more complicated than a more cursory take on it would be.
The Sound of Music has a reputation for being saccharine, but it nicely juxtapositions the sugar-plum von Trapp home with the icy background of its historical context. A few of the lesser-known songs – I’m thinking of “How Can Love Survive?” in the first Act and “No Way to Stop It” in the second – are so delightfully cynical that they could have been at home in Cabaret. There is a sweet scene of young love between the oldest von Trapp daughter (Donovan) and the local Western-Union boy Rolf (Danny Yoerges); it is only as it closes that you realize Rolf is a Nazi, reflexively throwing off a heil! as he leaves. (He is later given an opportunity to be human, and is so).
When I saw the Julie Andrews-Christopher Plummer film in the days of my youth, I thought it was a story of how Maria left the convent to care for the lonely Baron’s young children, but as I approach my dotage I see now that it is Georg’s story. It is a tale of a man who, alone among his peers, values his integrity and loves his country enough to give up everything except his family, rather than make himself supine before the Nazi wolf. George Dvorsky is at every moment this astonishing hero, and his righteousness – never played with too heavy a hand – informs the entire production. When he breaks down while singing the Austrian national song, “Edelweiss,” it is entirely genuine, and thus impossible not to be moved.
As swell as Olney’s production is, it’s not perfect. The set is surprisingly cheesy, and the set pieces move on and off stage with laborious slowness. The large stairs squeak embarrassingly as the characters move up and down it; the Baron would have had that fixed, macht schnell! The movement (Waldrop was the choreographer as well) is also not of the greatest, particularly as it involves the kids; I know that double-casting the von Trapp children presents extra challenges, but I wish they had rehearsed their leapfrog at greater length.
Leapfrog and squeaky stairs aside, The Sound of Music at Olney is a lovely way to spend two and a half hours.
For those of you who are interested in what happened to the von Trapps in real life, it is this: at the time of the Nazi takeover, Georg and Maria had actually been married for ten years, and had three children of their own in addition to the seven Georg had had with his first wife. They were on tour in Italy at the time their country fell; rather than return to Nazi domination they abandoned their estates and moved to the United States. Georg, who really had been a war hero, died in 1947, before the musical was created, but Maria lived forty more years. The seven von Trapp children – they had different names than the ones the musical gave them – lived happily and well in Vermont; four of them lived into their eighties or beyond, and one, Maria Franziska, is still alive at 97. (Georg’s and Maria’s three children are also all alive). Thus we see that the heroism of everyday life, when properly arranged and amplified, is art.
The Sound of Music
Book by Howard Lundsay and Russel Crouse; music by Richard Rodgers; lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Produced by Olney Theatre Center
Directed by Mark Waldrop
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
Two hours thirty minutes, with one intermission