The Sound of Music is a show that has entered into the common experience so extensively that people who haven't seen it think that they may have at some time in the past. The songs, such as “Do-Re-Mi,” “My Favorite Things,” and “Climb Ev'ry Mountain” are familiar to almost everyone. Another song, “Edelweiss,” is so common that many think it is a genuine Austrian folk song—it isn't; it was a Richard Rodgers creation.
The 1959 musical was a huge hit. It won won Tony Awards for Best Musical, Best Actress (Mary Martin as Maria), Best Featured Actress (Patricia Neway as Mother Superior), as well as for Scenic Design and Direction. It was nominated for some more: Best Actor (Theodore Bikel as von Trapp), Best Featured Actor (Kurt Kaznar as Max) and Best Director (Vicnent Donehue).
The 1965 film version, by 20th Century Fox and Robert Wise, staring Julie Andrews, was up against Doctor Zhivago—a greater contrast is hard to imagine. Both received 10 Academy Award nominations and each won five of them. However, The Sound of Music took the top honor. Both remain on many Top Ten lists of the best movies ever made.
Against these astronomical expectations, Lyric Stage Producing Director Steven Jones decided to launch a full-scale production with a complete symphony orchestra and using a combination of local and imported actors (only one, Christopher Carl as Captain von Trapp, is an Equity member). The amazing results can only be explained by magic, perhaps a captured genie granting a wish, or maybe, considering the prominence of nuns, divine intervention.
Lyric Stage always does a first-class job. Music Director Jay Dias plays a dual role. He is a forensic musicologist who digs through the archives to reconstruct the original version of the show, and more importantly, the original orchestrations. He is also an energetic (to say the least) conductor who delivers an inspired performance. In an era of synthesized shows, even for big budget Broadway tours, using an orchestra is exceptional. When telling friends in New York about this, they can hardly believe that a production with the full symphony is even possible in this day and age, let alone in Irving, Texas.
Eat your heart out, we say.
Another star of the show is the clever scenic design by James Fouchard. The proscenium is a gigantic golden rococo arch through which we view the production. The arch moves upstage in layers of painted arches, depicting the scene (such as clouds and sky). A large painted cyclorama of the mountains, which play such an important role in the show, is the backdrop. Smaller set pieces move in and out to depict the various locations—from the convent to the von Trapp estate. The effect is like a puppet stage writ large, or maybe more like peering into miniature world recreated inside of something like a Fabergé egg. It frames the action in such a way that we feel somewhat like voyeurs given a window through which we can see historical events as they occur. The lighting by Julie N. Simmons accents the design.
Much has already been said and written about the sanitized version of the story the show presents. The family did not cross the Alps carrying their luggage. They were on tour, and did escape from the Nazis, but took trains and ships, finally landing in Vermont. Maria, who died in 1987, didn't much care for the way she was portrayed. She said that both Mary Martin and Julie Andrews "were too gentle-like girls out of Bryn Mawr" (Washington Post in 1978).
This production, directed by Cheryl Denson, seeks to bring us a Maria more like the original. Bri Sudia, who is brilliant in the role, plays her as tomboyish and gawky—more likely to be climbing a tree as being a Baroness. She carries herself as if she grew about two feet in height right before the show starts and is still getting used to her suddenly bigger body. She is physically much bigger than either Andrews or the tiny Martin, so this works to her advantage dramatically. Vocally, she is a belter, as opposed to Andrews crystalline and conservatory-trained soprano and even Martin's more refined mezzo, who rarely belted. Sudia sings almost the entire role in chest voice, although she doesn't force the tone. The sound changes, and not for the better, when she raises her chin, but the overall performance is lovely and beautifully sung.
The biggest objection that the von Trapp family had with the show was the depiction of Captain von Trapp as a cold disciplinarian who forbade music in the household. They insist that he was warm and loving and that family musical nights were frequent. Christopher Carl tries to split this difference down the middle in his portrayal. He is stuck with lines in the show, but he conveys that there is an ol' softy under the crust with his manner in delivery. He is certainly the picture of a handsome and dashing war hero. He has a pleasing baritone voice and, although the role is too low for him in a number of places, sings with cultivated and well-placed sound.
The role of Max Detweiler, the gadfly impresario who launches the family into international stardom, is played to the hilt by Christopher Curtis. (Actually, in real life, this function was served by the von Trapp's local priest, Reverend Franz Wasner.) He is quite wonderful in the role, offering a middle ground between the stiff Captain and the goofy Maria.
The coveted song “Climb Ev'ry Mountain” was sung in all its glory on Saturday by Jodi C. Wright as the Mother Abbess, Dramatically, she found the right balance between the strict and the human. The song “My Favorite Things” is just perfect in this setting. In the movie, it is moved to a scene with Maria and the children. Here, it is a bonding moment between Reverend Mother and rebellious novice.
The previous candidate for Baroness von Trapp, Else Schraeder, is played with some humor and a lot of humanity by Jamelle Lutz. As Lutz plays her, she would have made a fine wife for the Captain and they would have had an enjoyable time together. When differences over the Nazis split them up, her exit from the situation is gracious.
The romance between Liesl, the oldest child (“Sixteen Going on Seventeen”) and the local postal delivery boy, Rolf, is played with touching innocence by Emily McIntyre and Johnny Lee. His later allegiance to the Nazis breaks both their hearts. Both his knocked-off-his-feet reaction to the first kiss and the regretful look in his eyes as he lies to his commander and lets the family escape are memorable.
The other von Trapp children are played by an outstanding troupe of youngsters: Colin G. Beaton, Emma Colwell, Hunter Hall and Sarah Youngblood. The completely adorable Mimi Barrus steals every scene just by her presence as Gretl, the youngest. Hayley Lenamon is also a standout as Brigitta, who is wise and intuitive beyond her years. Their singing and performances are so good that they could go on tour as a recreation act.
It should be mentioned that the music for the children was another sore spot for the members of the real family. They rarely sang popular songs, Mostly, they sang madrigals and motets as befits a group conducted by a priest. The current crop of great grandchildren, who are still touring even though they are getting a little old for the schtick, follow the example of the show and do not sing madrigals. They sing songs from the musical and some surprising selections such as “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.”
Speaking of excellent choral singing, the nuns also do a fine job. This is obviously a convent that recruits novices from Juilliard. The rest of the adult ensemble does a superb job of portraying all of the other character roles that are so critical to making the show real. A perfect case in point is the formally stiff portrayals of the von Trapp staff. Franz, the butler, played by James Williams and Frau Schmidt, played by Delynda Moravec, are terrific in the roles.
Jeffrey Meeks' costumes are excellent, appropriate and occasionally whimsical, such as the getups on some of the visiting royalty in the party scene. The frumpy hand-me-down dress that Maria wears on her first visit to the von Trapp mansion makes a stunning contrast to the glorious and regal wedding gown, underlining Maria's own journey.
This show will seem both fresh and familiar at the same time. Watching it again, after so many years of faded remembrances, the show shines anew. It reminds you that this show deserved every honor it won.