SOUND OF MUSIC: The Column Review

THE SOUND OF MUSIC

Reviewed by Carol Anne Gordon, Associate Theatre Critic for John Garcia’s THE COLUMN

 

“Rorschach! Get me a complete file on everyone who’s seen THE SOUND OF MUSIC more than four times!” – William Shatner, AIRPLANE II, THE SEQUEL.

Um, I resemble that remark. Four times? More like four hundred times. Easily.

Growing up, my parents had the original Broadway cast album of this show,featuring Mary Martin, who was too old (46!), too alto (in her duet with Theodore Bikel, they sounded like two male tenors), and too vibrato-y to play Maria, but we still played that album until it wore out, and sang the whole score on long road trips to Louisiana during the holidays. My mother had seen the actual Trapp Family Singers in concert when she was young, and my father had read the real Maria’s book.

So now you know, if you hadn’t guessed it before, that I come naturally – byboth nature and nurture – to my musical theatre geekiness.

When the show came to the Dallas Summer Musicals at Fair Park Music Hall in the early 1960’s, we couldn’t wait to get our usual seats in the top row of the third balcony in nosebleed Heaven. Initially, though, I was disappointed: the curtain rose, and we saw Maria, in her black & white postulant outfit, in a tight spot center stage.

Since all we had waaaay back then was a black & white TV, & since we were seated sooooo far away, I asked my parents, “Is this a cartoon?”Happily, the spot grew larger and the color staging appeared, and I was thrilled to see (finally!), instead of just imagining, the show played out before me in all its syrupy goodness.

And then, 1965 came, with the divine, sublime, enshrined Julie Andrews, who took the part of Maria and made it her own forever. The movie ran at the Inwood Theatre for two years straight, and every weekend, as long as I had completed my homework and chores, I was allowed to ride my bike up to the Inwood and watch at least one showing. My tenth birthday party was just one more excuse to go see it again, this time with all my friends.

So before I reached the age of 11, I had seen THE SOUND OF MUSIC well over one hundred times. It would be impossible to see any stage production of THE SOUND OF MUSIC and not compare it to the iconic movie, but I, the ultimate SOM fan, am here to tell you that this production measures up supremely well and does not disappoint.

Wanting to get a younger person’s view on the show, I took a 6 year old friend as my guest. Luckily, her parents also love the movie, so the story wasn’t new to her, but I was eager to get her take on the live performance, since she,unlike me, has only seen the movie, and not every local production that has ever appeared in the Metroplex since 1965.

Ironically, the last time I had been to Casa Mañana was when I was in junior high school, and it was to see – you guessed it – THE SOUND OF MUSIC. I felt a lot of nostalgia approaching the familiar silver dome, and was very impressed by what I found inside. Back in the day, Casa was a huge theatre-in-the round, but in 2004 it was completely renovated, and now features a proscenium thrust stage,with an actual backstage for entrances and exits. That disappointed me at first,because I remembered how much fun it used to be when the actors came and went byway of the aisles throughout the audience.

I’m happy to report that Casa has not abandoned that old tradition, and that it still works incredibly well. In the opening scene, just the Mother Abbess was onstage, singing the Dixit Dominus in Latin, while most of the nuns were lined up the aisles singing along. These holy sisters were indeed divine – on pitch, acapella, and perfectly in sync with beautiful round tones. A wonderfully auspicious start to a very enjoyable afternoon.

Throughout the show, actors continued to come and go via the aisles, always but always staying in character the whole time. Kudos to Director Alan Coats and the entire cast for this: it would have been very easy for the actors just to walk down the aisles in a leisurely manner, not being “on”, not acting out their parts, until they climbed the steps to get under the lights on stage, but not one of them took the easy way out. If they were under the dome, they were their characters.

Lighting Designer John Bartenstein and Scenic Designer Mark Halpin have done a fantastic job. For the first time in my boundless experience with this show, the familiar giant center stage staircase of the von Trapp mansion entryway, which splits into two high balconies, was no where to be found. All the scenes but one took place in front of the beautiful background of the Alps, with subtle set pieces of furniture, architecture, and landscaping creating the Nonnberg Abbey,Maria’s room, and the terrace of the von Trapp villa. Only in the next to last scene, when the family is onstage at the Salzburg Festival, does the suddenly enclosed space, decorated with huge Nazi banners, give the audience the claustrophobic feeling of impending doom promised by the Third Reich.

Tammy Spencer’s costumes were perfection, as was Coats’ choreography.I especially loved how he had the party guests marking the Laendler in place upstage while Maria and the Captain danced it expansively downstage.

The two second leads, Dennis Yslas as Max and Diana Sheehan as Elsa, were absolutely charming and always good comic relief. I’ve heard raves about Dennis Yslas in the past, but have never seen him perform until now. And now I understand what all the raves are about.

Sheehan also accomplished something that even one of my dearest friends, who played Elsa in the Lewisville production a few years ago, wasn’t able to do: she made me not hate….okay, she actually made me LIKE…the character of Elsa. She brought a warmth and comic layer to it that truly made me feel sorry for her when she called off her engagement to the Captain.

Sorry, should I have put a spoiler warning there? Surely not; how can anyone not know by now that Maria and the Captain end up together? And there lies the obstacle that the Casa crew had looming before them: how to put on this beloved musical in a way that was fresh enough to gain it new fans, not just bring in the old groupies like me.

They’ve surmounted this obstacle and succeeded. More than a third of the audience was children, and not all of them were girls, either. I sat in front of two tween boys who were having the time of their lives. My young guest knew every song already (from the movie), and sang along quietly on them, as I heard other children nearby doing.

Speaking of children singing: Bravi to the seven children onstage! What a beautiful blended sound, from Marty McElree as Liesl to Cosette Cook (who turned five years old opening day!) as Gretl.

Caitlin Hale Daniels, as Louisa, has a set of pipes that rings beautifully from the dome on her solo lines, but still blends perfectly in the ensembles.

And as Friedrich, Cooper Rodgers has a soprano that could have made him a star of the Vienna Boys’ Choir.

The surname Rodgers makes me ponder the composer of this wonderful musical –Richard Rodgers. Together, he and Oscar Hammerstein II wrote the music and lyrics, respectively, for this and several other famous musicals

But Hammerstein had died by the time the movie came out & Hollywood wanted some new songs for the film. As a result, Rodgers approved cutting three songs from the original Broadway production (“How Can Love Survive?”, “An Ordinary Couple”, and “No Way to Stop It”), and adding two new ones (“I Have Confidence” and “Something Good”).

When I first saw the movie, I missed the old songs, all though I did recognize “How Can Love Survive” being played instrumentally in the ballroom scene, and I was only lukewarm about the addition of “I Have Confidence”.

But “Something Good” – ugh. More like Something Awful. Great tune – that’s what Rodgers was famous for – but abysmal lyrics, because Rodgers wrote them instead of Hammerstein. Rodgers should have asked some other famous lyricist to help him out, because there were still plenty of them around then – Ira Gershwin, Alan Jay Lerner, the Sherman Brothers – heck, I was only 9 years old and I could’ve come up with something better than “nothing comes from nothing, nothing ever could”! Alas, ever since the movie premiered, stage productions have cut the same three original songs and added the two new ones from the movie.

Try, then, to imagine my excitement when I looked at the program for this performance and saw that the three original songs from the Broadway opening were going to be in this show, and that the two new ones from the film were not!Except….that’s not what happened.

Evidently whoever put the program together got the list of songs from Wikipedia’s list from the original show, instead of checking with the music director to see which songs were actually going to be performed.

“How Can Love Survive” was re-added to this show, and that was a welcome addition, especially since it gave a duet to Yslas and Sheehan. Note to Casa’s proofreaders: next time, run the program by the music director before you put it to bed.

We all need to be thankful that there was a music director, Edward G. Robinson,and a real live excellent orchestra. Musical theatre needs live music, and if we all want to see more of good musical theatre, we need to support the houses that have live music. This orchestra was excellent, never overpowering the singers,and subtly slowing their tempi a couple of times when a lead singer fell a bit behind the beat. The orchestra even garnered applause from the exiting guests as they played us all out of the theatre.

Patty Goble as Mother Abbess brought a warm rich voice to her leading of the nuns in three very different numbers, and really nailed the big finish of “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” at the end of Act I. Hers is not the hard to de-code contralto of the past that has traditionally played this part – instead she is intelligible and accessible, right up to her chill-inducing conclusion of this beautiful, inspiring ballad.

As Maria, Jacquelyn Piro Donovan had her work cut out for her. She’s miles better than Mary Martin ever was (which is a very good thing), and different from Julie Andrews (whom imitating would be an impossible thing). Her voice is more pop than I’ve usually heard in this role, but she conveys a genuine warmth and sincerity in her singing and dialogue, and to my surprise and delight, she also turned lines with which I’m very familiar into comic ones. Her voice was a perfect blend for that of Steve Blanchard, who played Captain von Trapp in an innovative way, as well – less cold and stuffy, more trying to hide his fragility with bluster.

My one complaint about this production would be something I have disliked about every live performance I have ever seen of this show: everyone is speaking with American accents, or maybe a little hint of a British or Austrian accent,until….zee evil Nazis ah-rrive. Und zen zeir accents are zo wery Cherman zat zey are praktiklee unintelligible.

This must be something in the stage directions, but it is ridiculous and always initiates unintentional laughter. The Nazis’ appearance in this happy house hold are supposed to imply the impending horror with which they were about to envelope the world, but instead they end up sounding like bad extras on a repeat of Hogan’s Heroes, and jolting the audience out of their previous suspension of disbelief until they (mercifully) exit the stage.

This show is a perfect family outing, worth the cost for the memories you will take with you. My only regret is that I won’t be able to go back again, with a whole bunch of children, to the closing night performance on September 19th,when the audience will be invited to sing along. You will regret it if you don’t take the opportunity to see this show, with as many family members, young and old, as you can, before its too-short run ends next weekend.

Reviewed by Carol Anne Gordon, Associate Theatre Critic for John Garcia’s THE COLUMN

__________________________________________________________________

THE SOUND OF MUSIC Casa Mañana Through September 19, 2010

Special sing-along performance Sunday, September 19th at 7 pm Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday nights at 7:30 pm Friday and Saturday nights at 8:00 pm Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2:00 pm Sunday nights at 7:00 pm

Tickets / Reservations / Box Office: (817) 332-2272

http://www.ticketmaster.com/Casa-Manana-tickets-Fort-Worth/venue/98310

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