The Sound of Music, book by Howard Lindsay and Russell Crouse, lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein, II, music by Richard Rodgers. Directed by John Saunders.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"How do you solve a problem like Maria?"
There is usually a simple answer to any question, a solution to any problem. For the Von Trapp family the answer comes in the spritely package of novice nun Maria. Without batting an eyelash she gets seven kids singing, the servants looking away and the father, a semi-retired captain in the Austrian navy - a widower with a bitter streak, strumming a guitar and developing his softer side. When the Nazis threaten their future Maria answers that challenge by taking her new family to the nuns who hide them and inspire them to "climb every mountain, Ďtill they find their dream." That dream, in case anyone didnít know it, was to lead them to America where they opened a camp for music and became a successful, if quirky, folk-song-singing musical troupe. It would seem that the solution to the problem of how to focus on your future in show business is find a bunch of Nazis and a whole lot of nuns.
Itís really not that simple, although the musicalization of this story tends to put it that way. On stage at the Mac-Haydn Theatre in Chatham, New York a talented company makes it seem all that easy but you can tell from the hyperactivity in the blackouts that thereís a whole lot more going on.
The Shook sisters, Karla and Kelly - who have dominated this stage-in-the-round this summer - are back on the boards as rivals for the love of the one good man in Austria, the one man willing to stand up for his beliefs. Karla Shook is funny-nun Maria and Kelly is wealthy-bitch Elsa Schraeder. Elsa has the money, clothing, hairstyle and posture to attract any man. Maria sings simple ditties and pokes fun at childrenís fears. Elsa contemplates the survival of love in political hotspots; Maria sings about simplistic concepts like mastering the tonic scale in children's book code. Obviously the sophisticated, wealthy widower is going to fall in love with simple little Maria. After all, opposites attract.
The trouble Iíve had with Sound of Music since its creation is this odd level of simplicity placed over the horrors of the tale, the difficulties faced by these people. Falling in love in a time of war is dangerous and so it is for Maria as it is for Liesl Von Trapp, a sixteen year old girl. In Lieslís case there is the ignorance of youth, her boyfriend attaching himself to the wrong side because it seems to be the winning side. In Mariaís itís the already stated unfair competition. What factors into the tale, only slightly, are the political ramifications of choices in a time of war. It falls to minor characters to deal with the philosophies that drive the story, motivate the main characters.
This isnít a musical about war, but like other hit shows such as Cabaret there are clear indicators that the trouble brewing around the romance - almost always a prime factor in a musical - is real and that this level of trouble brings threats and potential disaster.
In John Saunders handsomely directed production the threat never feels very real. You almost expect a German military parody number, which you already know doesnít exist because this show has been doing its specifc thing for far too long, to pop up suddenly, a rousing chorus of "Heil, Heil the Fuhrerís Smile" or something like that.
Karla Shook plays a credible Maria as she is written for this show. She has sincerity and honesty and her voice handles the music well. She has a quizzical face that sometimes tips one side of her mouth upwards into an awkward half smile-half sneer. She is, perhaps, a closer replica of the real Maria Von Trapp than her more famous predecessors, Mary Martin, Florence Henderson and so on.
Johnnie Moore is Captain Von Trapp and his good looks and rich voice make him a very good Trapp. We can believe in him in the role and that helps a good deal. In fact, he is so good at times that it seems impossible that he is not one of the professional Equity actors in the company which the program tells us he is not. There is no bio of him in the program, so you have to ask someone on staff if you really need to know more about him. An actor of this magnitude deserves better and if he was an Equity member they would have had to include his bio. This man deserves better.
Monica M. Wemitt is a wonderful Mother Abbess, her best role here since Lizzie in 110 in the Shade. She sings the role with strength and beauty and her scenes were consistent to character and often quite moving. If all you know about this character is what you've seen in the film she will come as quite a surprise as her own music takes her into the stratosphere - beautifully.
Kelly Shook is miscast as Elsa. For the first time, for me, she seems to be a prettier clone of her sister which works against the reality of the role and Elsaís fight to win her man who is clearly becoming interested in Maria. Similarly her buddy Max is played by a miscast Colin Pritchard. He comes across as far too young for the role and just a bit too effete.
The kids were wonderful. The "Alps" cast - one of two completely different groups - consisted of Eddie Knight, Victoria Ruddle, Zachary Mooney, Cassandra Pearson and Shelby Kline as a wonderful Gretl, the youngest child. Lauren Palmeri was a believable Liesl.
The rest of the large company did well in their roles, particularly the trio of nuns.
Beautifully, and sometimes appropriately awkwardly, clothed by Joshua Marsh, the show maintained a lovely look surrounded by the alpine wall paintings provided by set designer Bud Clark.
The Sound of Music is a decent musical which has been somewhat destroyed by the enormously successful film starring Julie Andrews. Judging from this production every Maria must start the show walking in a circle with her arms outstretched, just like Julie, or you donít have a show that people will like. Saunders, the director, has fallen into that trap here when a simple, quiet exultation of angels would have served. The title song is as much a prayer for the young nun as it is a mountaintop vista into her soul. Most of Saunders other choices were fine, but to even make a vague reference to that filmic source was a mistake.
The show is better constructed than the film which sacrificed cohesiveness and character for scenic splendor. The book for this show actually works better than I remembered and the score, in its current arrangement, has greater emotional impact than it does on celluloid. If youíre not moved by the first rendition of "So Long, Farewell" and if you are left without fear, remorse, sorrow or love by "Edelweiss" you should not be seeing this production of this show. Both moments are critical and both are delivered with every emotional stopgap opened up.
Reservations aside, this lovely production makes a fitting season-ender for this company.
The Sound of Music plays at the Mac-Haydn Theater on Route 203 in Chatham, New York through August 31. For tickets and schedules contact the box office at 518-392-9292.