Michael L. Quintos
- OnStage Los Angeles Critic
Costa Mesa CA - It's pretty safe to say that Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II's ubiquitous masterwork 'THE SOUND OF MUSIC' is one of the most popular Broadway musicals—heck, one of the most popular musicals, period—of all time.
That is a distinction, of course, that has certainly been cemented in large part thanks to the stage show's globally popular, Oscar-winning 1965 film adaptation starring Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer and directed by Robert Wise. That film—a staple among household movie collections and holiday TV viewing—made showtunes like "My Favorite Things," "Do-Re-Mi," "Edelweiss," "Sixteen Going on Seventeen," and many more into inescapable earworms that had the entire world and subsequent generations warbling like a nun-turned-nanny in love with a retired sea captain with seven children living in an Austrian mansion on the eve of Nazi occupation.
With the musical basically preserved on celluloid in, perhaps, a version that's closest to its desired perfection, why then would anyone even dare attempt to mount yet another national tour of the original 1959 stage show (which also features a book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse)?
Well, if you are Tony Award-winning director Jack O'Brien, it is apparently still rife with theatrical splendor.
Remarkably, he's quite right. A surprisingly well-done, beautifully-paced production that feels like a truly fresh revival of something many of us have forever seared in our brains, this brand new presentation of THE SOUND OF MUSIC—now on stage at Orange County's Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa through July 31—is a resplendent enterprise that is equal parts heartwarming nostalgia and entertaining, feel-good theater. Say what you will about how hokey and old-fashioned this show may be now... but I, for one, truly adore it.
Entering the theater with no specific expectations, seeing this new production of this well-known classic was, genuinely, a delightful experience that reminds one why the show, even in its barest structure, is still a smile-inducing, wonderful piece of musical theater. While it has no prospects in overtaking the film version for greatness, O'Brien's beguiling revival does make the case for being the best version of this Rodgers and Hammerstein classic that I have seen in this current millennium.
Obviously, a show as iconic as THE SOUND OF MUSIC should probably feature actors that can take on the daunting task of essaying characters many of us know vividly as if they're a part of our own extended families. Luckily, the casting gods (well, in this case, Telsey + Company) have made a wonderful discovery in Kerstin Anderson, who plays a spunky, utterly charming Maria, the rebellious postulant sent over to be the governess for the seven young children of retired Naval Captain Georg Von Trapp, here played by the regal Ben Davis.
No doubt, there will be expected immediate comparisons to previous Marias (yes, even the one that played a magical governess in another film musical), but Anderson's take on the role is a truly enjoyable one, and she effortlessly sells the idea why the formerly naughty children and their curmudgeonly daddy all instantly take a liking to her—she's an easily likable young woman that inspires excitement, and Anderson just beams it. The way she interacts with the kids—essentially not much younger than she is, let's be honest—is totally natural and believably realistic. She is a joyful person, and, therefore, the kids learn to let out that joy, too.
Anderson and Davis lead a remarkable supporting cast that also include Teri Hansen as the posh Elsa Schraeder, the woman betrothed to Georg; the swoon-worthy Dan Tracy as Nazi-wannabe/telegram dispatcher Rolf, who (yikes) happens to be in love with eldest Von Trapp daughter Liesl, played by the spirited Paige Silvester; Merwin Foard as the deliciously overbearing music impresario Max Detweiler, whose cavalier attitude over the coming Anschluss and his determination to get the Von Trapp children in the national music festival infuriate Georg; and, finally, the glorious Melody Betts, who plays the Reverend Mother Abbess. Here, too, Betts offers a fresh take on the convent's figurehead: an older, wiser surrogate mom/BFF for orphan Maria. Their interactions feel more like an older best friend dispensing life advice to a naive younger friend. And, my gosh, her epic rendition of "Climb Ev'ry Mountain" gave me goosebumps during the show's press opening night performance.
Of course, we cannot forget about the children. Besides Silvester, the kids—who all look remarkably authentic to the ages of their characters—make for a happily rambunctious bunch that each get their brief chances to shine: Jeremy Michael Lanuti (Friedrich), Ashley Brooke (Louisa), Austin Levine (Kurt), Iris Davies (Brigitta, a role that gets a cute, story-driven expansion here), Kyla Carter (Marta), and Audrey Bennett (as youngest Gretl).
On the technical side, this new grand-scale production of THE SOUND OF MUSIC is pleasantly high-caliber and a visual stunner. I especially love the show's simply-executed but still contextually gorgeous set designs and backdrops by scenic designer Douglas W. Schmidt—particularly the morphing flat panels that transform the theater space into different darkened rooms of the Nonnberg Abbey or the bright pop of the Von Trapp Villa. The grand wedding that is featured in the second act is simply staged yet looks about as grand as it can be, thanks to a well-illustrated backdrop coupled with Natasha Katz's expert lighting that mimics the interiors of a grand church one would expect for a Von Trapp affair. And when the towering huge red curtains with the Nazi swastika emblazoned on them drop down for the Salzburg music festival, they feel like a stunning shock to the system.
For his part, Danny Mefford offers some dynamic choreography, particularly for Rolf and Liesl's backyard Pas de duex. Jane Greenwood's richly tailored costumes harken back to some familiar couture from the film but amps them up with a sense of luxuriance for the stage (except for the nuns and Maria's convent hand-me-down postulant frocks, of course). Most tours, sadly, skimp on such accoutrements. But in this stage show, every visual detail feels like they were customized for a Broadway house that now has hit the road.
And this enjoyable new touring production not only looks appealing, it also sounds appealing, too. The show's 18-piece orchestra, under the baton of musical director Jay Alger, sounds lush and heavenly, bringing Rodgers and Hammerstein's magnificent score to full volume that tours rarely get to hear. Although I wish the production incorporated an opening grand overture, the luxury of hearing this orchestral music performed in this manner is enough of a perk to justify experiencing THE SOUND OF MUSIC live in a theater again.
Those in the audience scratching their heads as to why there are two "extra" songs in the production and why certain songs are sung in strange places (often by different characters) are, of course, probably unaware that their favorite movie musical of all time first existed on the stage. This touring production retains that idea, following the Broadway model much more, which involves the inclusion of two of three Broadway songs that were left off the film version: "How Can Love Survive?" and "No Way To Stop It." Honestly, the show does remind audiences why these two songs were left off in the first place. Oy. This new production does, however, include a revised version of the written-for-the-film love duet "Something Good" (replacing the bland love duet "An Ordinary Couple" from the original stage version) which is a much more welcome revision.
Overall, O'Brien's confident new take on THE SOUND OF MUSIC is a sincere, beautifully-realized production that offers up sweeping scope with the nostalgic comforts of familiarity mashed together. It moves along swiftly through various story points without a single lag, taking care to highlight its musical numbers with the historical reverence they deserve. What could have been a lazily put-together affair is instead a genuinely delightful new production that both purists and newbies can both enjoy together.
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Photos from the National Tour of THE SOUND OF MUSIC by Matthew Murphy, courtesy of Segerstrom Center for the Arts.
Performances of the National Tour of THE SOUND OF MUSIC at Segerstrom Center for the Arts continue through Sunday, July 31, 2016. Tickets can be purchased online at www.SCFTA.org, by phone at 714-556-2787 or in person at the SCFTA box office (open daily at 10 am). Segerstrom Center for the Arts is located at 600 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa. For tickets or more information, visit SCFTA.org.