Fort Worth — Heading into Casa Mañana’s tuneful and appealing revival of The Sound of Music, directed by the energetic Casey Hushion, I had the usual on my mind: Maria, the kids, the Captain, and all those great Rodgers and Hammerstein tunes. For straight-up musical theater buffs, this show is like a happily familiar bedtime story—something we can hear again and again. (Casa must feel the same way; their last S of M was only three years ago, in 2011.)
But I walked out thinking another thought: Is it just me, or have those nuns become way, way cooler than they used to be? The “nun parts”—which have sometimes tended to be a) too comic or b) an odd fit, all those ancient Latin hymns in the middle of a musical—had, this time around, a surprisingly exciting “woman power” vibe that added a real jolt of energy and strength to the show. A bit more on that later, but first, the essentials:
Marissa McGowan makes a lively, big-hearted Maria, who’s quick to fall for the seven motherless children she’s been sent to teach—and brave enough to stand up to their widowed father, Austrian naval hero Captain von Trapp (Jarrod Emick). She’s plucky and fun, with a wide smile and a rich singing voice that sells every song. It’s easy to see why she charms the children.
Emick, a Tony Award-winner for his role as Joe Hardy in Damn Yankees in the ‘90s, is genuinely intimidating as the rigid Captain, whose grief over his wife’s death has made him banish music (and fun) from the house. As he’s transformed—out of love for his children, and then for Maria too—we’re glad to see life and happiness come back into that face. He’s natural and loving with the children, and has an intriguing folksinger-ish voice (accompanying himself on guitar for “Edelweiss”). With these two actors in the roles, this unlikely romance gets some real chemistry going—no mean trick when most of the audience knows exactly how things will come out.
Local audiences last saw Jacquelyn Piro Donovan as Maria in Casa’s 2011 production—and here she is again, this time taking the critical role of Mother Abbess, who tells Maria the convent/abbey isn’t a place where she can hide from the world, and that “the love of a man and a woman” is just as holy a calling as the life of a cloistered nun. Donovan lets us glimpse the energetic girl inside the dignified abbess; in reprising Maria’s song about her “favorite things” she momentarily kicks up her own heels—and she’s a powerful singer, both in leading the chorus of nuns and in her first-act closer, “Climb Ev’ry Mountain.”
The nuns, featuring Cheryl Allison as Sister Margaretta, Lois S. Hart as Sister Berthe (and the von Trapp’s housekeeper) and Sarah Powell as Sister Sophia, are funny without being slapstick as they worry about Maria, who doesn’t seem suited to life in the abbey. And the sisters’ choral singing—a dozen or so voices in close harmony—includes renditions of centuries-old church music sung with verve and feeling, from the grave opening “Preludium” to the joyful “Gaudeamus Domino” (“Let us rejoice in the Lord”), sung in celebration of Maria’s wedding. These are, we feel, women of power and purpose: they help Maria find love and life, send her into marriage with their blessing, and put themselves in danger to help the family escape the Nazis. Maybe it’s the last few decades that have let actors play nuns as people, not types; maybe it’s audiences with less rigid expectations of who these ladies are. But whatever—I’ll say it again, these women are a force.
Cara Statham Serber and Paul Taylor are brittle and just-enough charming as the sophisticates of the piece, the wealthy Elsa Schraeder, who hopes to marry the Captain, and Max Detweiler, the music promoter who loves his well-off friends—and the way he lives when he’s with them. R&H wrote two cynical, satirical, wonderful songs for Elsa and Max; happily, this production (unlike many) actually gives them one of those songs, the teasing “How Can Love Survive?” The song’s joke is that in stories, True Lovers all have to “starve and snuggle” in freezing garrets—so how can the rich Captain and the even-richer Elsa expect romance to last?
Sadly, the other Max/Elsa number gets the ax, though it’s tantalizingly listed in the program. The song is (or would have been) the pointedly political “No Way to Stop It”—in which Elsa and Max tell the Captain “he’s a fool” if he won’t compromise with the Nazis; the “crazy world full of crazy people” will go on turning, no matter what he does to fight them. These are the songs (like South Pacific’s “You’ve Got To Be Taught”) that push back against the feeling that Rodgers and Hammerstein are all sentiment and no spine. Next time, why not include both and see how much energy is added to the story?
The younger von Trapp children, drawn from the ranks of Casa’s theater education programs, sing sweetly. Led by two lively young-adult actors, Alyssa Robbins as Liesl and Brandon Shreve as Friedrich, they act their parts naturally and with nuance; Camryn Wright stands out among the younger set as the smart, sees-everything Brigitta.
Music director Michael Duff and his “pit crew” of players accompany the singers beautifully, and director-choreographer Hushion fashions some pretty dances, especially for Liesl and her young love Rolf (Charlie H. Ray) in “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” and for Maria and the kids in “Do-Re-Mi.” This is an especially good-looking production that fills the theater’s wide stage; it’s a notable debut for Drew Lupson as scenic designer, with Kaitlyn Donovan as scenic artist. As always, Tammy Spencer comes up with a great-looking array of costumes, and Jonathan Parke (sound design) and Samuel Rushen (lighting design) team up to scare the wits out of the kids in the audience with their shock-and-awe show of shrill Nazi whistles and sweeping searchlights.
In other words, Casa Mañana’s done right by this perennial favorite, which is sure to please the people who know every song by heart (why not host a sing-along, Casa?), as well as kids or grandkids seeing it for the very first time.