The Kennedy Center was alive with The Sound of Music on Friday night. Almost every seat was taken in the vast Opera House auditorium for the opening night of the latest Broadway-style touring production. Adults were ready to sing along to this most beloved musical by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. Companion children by the dozens also trooped in and several soon got caught up in shouting out lyrics and providing other comments proving that they too knew the movie, to almost everyone’s merriment.
At last, the nation’s capital was served up a conspicuously non-partisan family-style musical to escape into, and boy, were many ready for it this June. Three time Tony Award winning Director Jack O’Brien did not disappoint those people looking for such a feel-good show.
The lavish production was suitably outfitted by efforts of design-team royalty, including Joan Greenwood’s gorgeous costumes and a set that went from an abstract rendition of a cloister mostly done with masterful shafts of light by Natasha Katz to a full baronial hall with grand staircase and somewhat curious lace-patterned wing panels by set designer Douglas W. Schmidt.
The production also proved an opportunity to explore the work as it had been originally conceived, B.C., that is Before Cinema and Julie Andrews stamped the work forever as her own. To get a glimpse of the process of writing and the creators’ original intentions made it fascinating to me. Some of the strengths of the show and even some weaknesses were revealed. Was there ever a musical where nearly the entire second act was conceived as a series of reprises? And why did Maria choose to sing about a horny old goatherd to the children when a thunderstorm had them piling into her room for comfort?
Nonetheless, for better or worse O’Brien rented the score “as is” and decided to direct the production mostly in the original stage version.
In his attempt to refresh the musical, he went out of his way to replace the image of Julie Andrews at the center of the work. Instead, the press release claims that the show found a new star. Well, maybe.
Charlotte Maltby is cast young and country, something of a cross between a gangling adolescent and bumpkin milkmaid. She is so awkward socially that it’s a breeze to understand the nuns’ singing “How do you solve a problem like Maria?” I found her strong physicality arresting and amusing in the cloistered setting because it can be supported by the text. But later it strained the story development.
Gone is not only the physical grace of Andrews but her round vowels and smooth lyrical line. Our new Maria leans heavily into her r’s and chops up a vocal line like it’s a cobb salad. Plenty of crunch and bite, but I’m not sure it fulfills Rodgers’ gorgeous musicality.
In fact the direction seems to have asked for many in the cast to invent or “new-coin” words. Maybe it was an attempt to get away from the show’s familiarity, literally to help us, the audience, discover the lyrics again. The Abbess’ sings “Climb …every…moun…tain” renders any meaning to almost nonsense.
The most egregious problem posed by the casting was that the relationship with Captain von Trapp, who starts out as a dashing if uptight Austrian military autocrat, just doesn’t hold muster. Maria seems more like one of his older children, none of whom he pays much attention to anyway. Their kiss, an awkward clench, had the audience, including children, tittering wildly. Even when Maria returns to his house after fleeing him and her own feelings, she hunches her shoulder and lurches around like an awkward girl in a class trying to hide her height, and one can’t imagine an adult spark there. I was left thinking “could this marriage be saved?”
Where Maltby is splendid and the whole show come to life are the scenes and the songs with the children. She teaches solfège to all seven of Von Trapp’s children, complete with its system of kinesiological signing, and the song “Do Re Mi” enthusiastically lifts the whole auditorium. The kids are perfectly cast and good singers in the bargain. Paige Silvester, Elliot Weaver, Stephanie DiFiore, James Bernard, Dakota Riley Quackenbush, Taylor Coleman and Anika Lore Hatch win all hearts.
A most curious rearranging back to the original comes with “My Favorite Things,” which comes not as a kids’ song against a storm but in an earlier duet with the Abbess. Having never seen it performed this way, I couldn’t imagine a stern Abbess delivering it. But kudos to Melody Betts, who clearly had a soft spot in her heart for all wavering postulants. She makes the Abbess not just warm and spirited but as she lets on she learned the song in the Alps, we see her as a kindred spirit to the girl. Had she also been a poor girl needing protection in a convent? Might she even have mothered Maria then abandoned her? Stranger things have happened in the history of nunneries. (Her curious fluffing of her black nun habit evoked a plump mother bird fluffing her feathers in protection while her long wavering finger that pointed and wagged at Maria reminded me of a scolding parent.)
There are some other fine performances. I would go hear Nicholas Rodriguez sing anything, and, while his Baron von Trapp is less three-dimensional than some of his earlier local lead roles (Carousel, Oklahoma!), he once again proves his voice can make audiences swoon. If only the team of Rodgers and Hammerstein had known this singer’s abilities, they would have written him more songs, I am sure. His “Edelweiss” was the most heartfelt rendering and stirring song of the evening.
I loved Paige Sylvester as Liesl and Austin Colby as Rolf in their scene of wooing and the song “I am Sixteen Going on Seventeen.” Here were two young people who embodied old-style great musical performances. Not only did their voices blend beautifully but she moved like a Leslie Caron, naturally full of grace, and he partnered her ably, showing us a funny side to a young man trying to win his girl but later who sadly gets caught up in the times, as so many Germans did, needing to pledge allegiance to Hitler’s crazed ambitions. Their romance is a casualty of the war to come, and these two performers deliver the heartbreak.
Teri Hansen plays Elsa, the Austrian polished society woman of many accomplishments who in this production might have proved a better match for von Trapp if it wasn’t for the period’s bloody politics. Hansen sings admirably well and is totally convincing as a grand dame.
The Sound of Music
closes July 2, 2017
Details and tickets
Merwin Foard as Max is terrific, cutting a marvelous figure in his “weekend in the country” gentleman’s costume and singing confidently with a gorgeous round sound of the age of great musicals even light opera singing. He ably made the shift between a kind of playful uncle with the children to a man who rides the times to the point he has to make serious ethical accommodations as so many of his generation did.
The serious challenge for any touring musical is to stay lifted above the exactitude of blocking and polished gesture that such shows are known for, and I fear the production had at times the feel of a well executed but ever-so-slightly worn tour. The music too lacked some of the hurrah of what was scored originally, including a greatly reduced string section (from the original thirteen to a traveling violin plus three additional string instruments) and therefore loses the conceived experience of the work’s soaring, lush sound.
But all in all, it makes a great introduction to a big American musical where one can sing along (quietly in your head, please, out of consideration to those around you) and become carried away by this most pleasing work of the great Rodgers and Hammerstein.
The Sound of Music. Book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse. Music by Richard Rodgers. Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II. Directed by Jack O’Brien. Set Design by Douglas W Schmidt. Lighting Design by Natasha Katz. Costumes designed by Joan Greenwood. Sound Design by Ken Travis. Choreography by Danny Mefford. With Charlotte Maltby, Melody Betts, Merwin Foard, Teri Hansen, Nicolas Rodriguez, Paige Sylvester, Austin Colby, Elliot Weaver, Stephanie DiFiore, James Bernard, Dakota Riley Quackenbush, Taylor Coleman and Anika Lore Hatch . Presented by The Kennedy Center . Reviewed by Susan Galbraith.R