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A CurtainUp Review
The Sound of Music

Update, May 14, 1999.

Since this revival opened over a year ago it has once again defied those critics who pooh-poohed it as too sugary. Not only is it still running strong but it's as fresh as the mountain air of its Alpine setting, especially with its current leads -- Richard Chamberlain and Laura Benanti.

Chamberlain's Captain von Trapp is loaded with dash and charisma surpassing that of many a hunkier leading man half his age. He's charming even when he must play the martinet. The nineteen-year-old Benanti is one of the most winning musical stars I've seen in a long time. And she sings as well as she looks! The considerable age difference between this Georg and Maria seems to actually add to the romantic tension (the real life couple were also years apart). His worldly maturity and her bubbly, bursting with song youth add up to the same irresistible romantic tension that made The Thorn Birds one of Chamberlain's mini-series super hits.

While Chamberlain's name is undoubtedly the current big draw, especially for the women of uncertain years who have adored him as Dr. Kilgare and the star of countless TV dramas, make a note of the name Laura Benanti. She could well be our next Julie Andrews. Her mother and voice coach kept her away from the grease paint until she graduated from Kinnelon High School in New Jersey, but soon thereafter she won the Papermill Playhouse Rising Star Award and arrived on the stage of the Martin Beck Theater. Her bit part as a new postulant in the convent was too small to hint that this was a musical star in the making. As Rebecca Luker's understudy she had plenty of time to get accustomed to Maria's dirndls and songs. Now, with her name finally above the title in the program, she has risen magnificently to her first big opportunity. If things go right, we may see her in a brand-new musical before too long. (The reason she's missed a few Wednesday matinees is that she's been rehearsing for a workshop production of Time And Again -- under the creative direction of Sound Of Music's Jack Viertel).

As is common for any long-running shows, some of the other original cast members have stayed in place while others have been replaced. Jan Maxwell makes as strong an impression as a blonde Elsa Schraeder as she did sporting a red wig. Sara Zelle and Tracy Alison Walsh show no signs of weariness as the two older von Trapp girls, Liesl and Brigitta. Their current siblings again manage to avoid being too cute. Jeanne Lehman is a most satisfactory Mother Abbess.

All told, The Sound of Music a year later remains a satisfying, old-fashioned musical. Sure its ending is on the manipulative fairy tale side, but when you consider that cornucopia of catchy tunes, so what?
-- Elyse Sommer

Background Notes For Trivia Fans

I walked out of preview performance of The Sound of Music smiling and humming.. The next morning, I caught myself singing "My Favorite Things" and "Do-Re-Mi" in the shower. I can't recall the last time not one, but practically every musical number in a show lodged itself in my mind like that demanding to be sung.

Sure, it's a hokey story -- Maria, a guitar-strumming governess, rekindles the joie de vivre in seven sad little rich kids and their father and leads them to a world where the sound of music is louder than the sound of "Heil Hitler." You know that father's martinet exterior will crumble along with Maria's plan to become a nun. You realize that the lyrics are the stuff of the greetings that define the company that's revived this forty-year old lyrical valentine to hope, courage and the unifying power of music. But so what? At a time when life on an off the stage is filled with cynicism and atonality, why not at least an occasional taste of this particular brand of enjoyable kitsch with stick-to-the-mind melodies to make it all go down smooth as a spoonful of honey. Especially if packaged as handsomely as it is here.

As directed by Susan H. Schulman this revival while still kitschy does allow a darker reality into the land of yodels and edelweiss. There's no missing the insidious expansion of Nazism hovering over the splendor of life among Salzburg's upper crust and the burgeoning love of the governess and the handsome widower. Visually, there's one little swastika flag on a bike turn into an even more visible swastika on the cyclist's arm, which then multiplies into more armbands and finally explodes into several giant swastika flags. Verbally, there are increasing references to the coming Anschluss, and musically there's a song, "There's No Way to Stop It" -- (from the 1965 movie but not the original Broadway show) -- which sums up the path of no resistance chosen by many of the von Trapps countrymen.

Does the combination of old-fashioned musical plus 90s edginess work? The greater emphasis on the Nazi menace does imbue this new Sound of Music with a more historically accurate flavor. However, while it gives the original book writers' (Linday and Crouse) fairy tale something of a Brothers Grimm spin, it hardly puts the show on a par with the Jewish consciousness raising elements of the current The Diary of Anne Frank. The Nazi counterpoint, notwithstanding, The Sound of Music remains what it is -- a feel good, sound good entertainment The touch of 90s edginess plus the fact Ms. Schulman has directed the seven von Trapp children to be delightful but never cloyingly cute, makes for "a reduced sugar content" label but "sugar free" would violate truth in labeling.

In that musicals are as much about scenery as songs, designer Heidi Ettinger does not disappoint. The production navigates between the dark abbey where Maria is a novice and the sun-drenched mansion of Baron von Trapp. There's also the overriding presence of the purple mountains first glimpsed as part of a little glass ball, ( the kind that when shaken create a storm of snow or star dust), in the center of a handsome royal blue curtain. The sets revolve, slide in and out, and in the case of the cathedral altar for the stunning wedding scene, rise out of the stage. By having several scenes where the actors walk down the aisles, the audience is drawn right into the magical (and scary) world of Salzburg.

As for the leading lady, while Rebecca Luker does not eclipse Julie Andrews as the movie Maria who made The Sound of Music so familiar that many can sing it by heart, she is a star in her own right with a soprano voice that rings true and pure. She may not be quite the flibbertigibbet, "thecloud you can't pin down" the nuns describe early in the show ("Maria") but she is thoroughly endearing and convincing in conveying her feelings for the children and for Georg. And she's lovely even in those Germanic braids, lace-up shoes and dirndl outfits that are her fashion cross to wear during much of the evening.

Though Maria is the pivotal character this is very much a musical of ensemble excellence. Michael Siberry is an appropriately handsome Baron who manages to be attractive even during his mercifully brief stint as a whistle-blowing martinet. Unlike his leading lady he is not a seasoned singer but his singing voice, such as it is, has a clear naturalness so that he doesn't have to be dubbed as Christopher Plummer was in the movie. The real strength of his performance lies in his romantic interaction with Ms. Luker.

Another pivotal player, Patti Cohenour, portrays the Mother Abbess with great warmth and sufficient vocal range to do justice to the show's anthem number, "Climb Every Mountain". Two minor players who make major impressions are Jan Maxwell as the almost Baroness von Trapp, Elsa Schrader and Fred Applegate as the jolly "uncle" Max. They add a welcome breath of sophistication to their portrayals of the good Austrians (as opposed to those who welcomed the Anschluss) who would like to abide by Georg's principles but have backbones that are more schlag (German for whipped cream) than sinew.

Finally there are the seven young von Trapps whose dancing and singing is a delight. All are charmingly unpretentious. Sara Zelle who plays "Sixteen-Going-on-Seventeen" Liesl actually is sixteen. Her dance with the young mailman and eventual Hitler Youth, Rolf (Dashiell Eaves), is a standout. These peppy dance sequences as well as the processional choreography in the abbey and during the wedding scene are a credit to choreographer Michael Lichtefeld's talent .

Another contributor to the more authentic feel of this production is Catherine Zuber. Her c. 1938 costumes are right on the button. I particularly liked Georg's Austrian Alps style leisure suit. And who knows -- Ms. Zuber's dirnls might even bring that innocent looking fashion back into fashion -- but only if we could all be assured we'd look as good in them as Rebecca Luker and her young charges do.

We've given this an age 6 and up rating in our Broadway Address book but since the theater has a notice to the effect that children under 4 will not be admitted, you could probably dip below this. In fact if the performance attended is an indication, plenty of parents are disregarding the 4-year-old rule. We might add, that kids of all ages were well-behaved and it's the parents and grandparents with kids in tow who are most likely to make this a box office hit even if not a critical rave.

Maria Augusta Trapp's biography is available at Amazon.com The Story of the Trapp Family Singers,
Our review of another Nazi era revival: The Diary of Anne Frank (also Cabaret in the Berkshires and after 3/19/98 at the Round

Book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse.
Based on the story of the "Trapp Family Singers" as documented by Maria Augusta Trapp
. Music by Richard Rogers
Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Directed by: Susan H. Schulman.
Starring: Rebecca Luker and Michael Siberry.
Featuring: Fred Applegate, Patricia Conolly, Patti Cohenour, Sara Zelle, Dashiell Eaves, John Curless, Ryan Hopkins, Jan Maxwell, Tracy Alison Walsh, Matthew Ballinger, Andrea Bowen, Ashley Rose Orr, Jeanne Lehman, Natalie Hall, Gina Ferrall, Ann Brown, Timothy Landfield, Reno Roop, Gannon McHale, Anne Allgood, Joan Barber, Laura Benanti, Martha Hawley, Kelly Cae Hogan, Siri Howard, Tad Ingram, Matthew Loney, Betsi Morrison, Patricia Phillips, Lynn C. Pinto, Kristie Dale Sanders, Ben Scheaffer, Margaret Shafer, Nora Blackall, Marissa Gould and Lou Taylor Pucci.
Sets: Heidi Ettinger
Costumes: Catherine Zuber
Lighting: Paul Gallo
Sound: Tony Meola
Choreograpy: Michael Lichtefeld
Musical Director: Michaelel Rafter
Orchestrations: Bruce Coughlin
Martin Beck, 302 W. 45th St (212/239-6200)
Performances start 2/09/98;opening 3/12/98
. Reviewed 3/13/98 by Elyse Sommer

Background Notes For Trivia Fans
1959 -- The Sound Of Music (originally called The Singing Heart ) opens at the Lunt-Fontaine on Broadway, starring Mary Martin and Theodore Bikel. It was the last musical written by two masters at allowing music to tell a story, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. The show ran for 1,443 performances despite dismissive reviews by such leading critics of the day as , Brooks Atkinson, Walter Kerr and Harold Clurman (who called it a prettily packaged "a bundle of sugar"). The top ticket price was $5. Some performers who went on to bigger an better things: opera star Tatiana Troyana (chorus member) and movie star John Voight (replacement for Rolf the Hitler Youth mailman).

The original plan was to feature songs associated with the real von Trapps but once Rodgers and Hammerstein joine the book writers Howard Linsay an Russell Crouse, the sound of their music quickly prevailed.

The first Maria, Mary Martin, could have been the mom of movie Maria, Julie Andrews. Martin donned her dirnl at 46, Julie at 24 -- and the latest Maria, Rebecca Luker, at 36.

Did the real von Trapp's really climb those Austrian alps? Recreationally, while they lived in Salzburg, sure. However, their exodus from the Nazis was not quite so picturesque -- like many refugees they were still able to buy a railroad ticket out of their homeland.

An while we're deconstructing the biographical aspects of the musical, a re- reading of Maria von Trapp's autobiography and a recent New York Daily News interview with one of the von Trapp children the 83-year-old Maria von Trapp point to numerous other detours from facts: The von Trapp children already knew their do-re-mi's by the time their guitar-strumming governess arrived though it was she who orchestrated their professional singing careers (not "uncle" Max); the seconary romance with the Hitler Youth postman was manufactured; and while the vonTrapps were ineed anti-Nazis who would probably have perished had they remained, the first jolt to their life in Salzburg was caused not by the Nazis but the collapse of the family bank. What's more, they weren't all that enthusiastic about having Maria become their mama and Maria wasn't quite the naive little novice portrayed but a college graduate.

When Mary Martin nabbed a Tony, her rival Ethel Merman of Gypsy cracked "How do you buck a nun?"

August 23, 1960 -- Mary Martin throws a teary kiss, (not in the script), towards the balcony, a tribute to Oscar Hammerstein II whose death has just been announced. A week later, on August 31, the entire Broadway theater district is blacked out for one minute to honor Hammerstein

1965 -- The Sound Of Music movie starring Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer (his voice is dubbed by Bill Lee; as was Peggy Wood's Mother Abbess, by Margery MacKay) becomes one of the most successful movies ever. Although the theatrical version has been much performed internationally (with a six-year run at Lonon's Palace Theatre) and on the stock and amateur circuit, it is the movie that familiarized people of all ages with the story and songs.

1991 -- The Sound Of Music enjoys a brief reprise as part of the City Opera's larger effort to bring classic musicals to the New York State Theatre. It starred Debby Boone, Laurence Guittard and Werner Klemperer.

1998 -- The Sound Of Music returns to Broadway starring Rebecca Luker, whose impressive list of musical credits include Show Boat and Phantom Of The Opera. The lead producer, Hallmark, is the third corporate giant to sponsor a major musical on Broadway this season.

The costumes of both original Broadway show and movie were circa 1950. The 1998 revival has captured the look of the actual time, 1938.

The Broadway Theatre Archive


©Copyright March 1998, May 1999, Elyse Sommer.
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