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A CurtainUp New Jersey Review
The Sound of Music

"All I could wish for is right here." — Maria

The Sound of Music
Elena Shaddow
(Photo: T. Charles Erickson)
If the nine years since the Paper Mill Playhouse last produced The Sound of Music seems like a wrinkle in time, I have to concede that its return is as likely to be as popular an attraction as ever to its large and adoring fan base. Director-choreographer James Brennan has once again picked up the reins and delivered what is expected and even a bit more. Admittedly my heart has warmed a bit over time to the book by Howard Lindsay and Russell Crouse based on The Trapp Family Singers by Maria Augusta Trapp.

My generosity toward the now familiar story also extends to the precociously melodic, earnestly reverential music by Richard Rodgers and the artfully sentimental lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II. With only a smidgeon of dancing and a smattering of laughs, The Sound of Music nevertheless, has the ability to insinuate its charm into the most resistant among us.

It is the presumably true, yet syrupy, tale of a young postulant Maria Rainer (Elena Shaddow) who, unable to attend to her studies and duties at the Abbey with a more appropriate attitude, is told by the Mother Abbess to temporarily take some time-out. However reluctant she is to climb down from the yodel-inducing Alps, she obey orders to take the job of governess to seven little robotic children at the estate of Austrian Army Captain Georg von Trapp (Ben Davis). The primary conflict for Maria, but not one that fires up much dramatic interest for us, is to make a decision between a life romping in the hills or returning to the hallowed halls where the Mother Abbess, as appealingly played by Suzanne Ishee, can be expected to prime Maria with that gloriously sung anthem “Climb Every Mountain.”

There is a secondary plot concerning the other woman Elsa (Donna English is repeating the role she played to condescending perfection in the Paper Mill’s 2003 production) who, not pleased by the Captain’s anti-Nazi sympathies, eventually goes back down the mountain with only a modicum of regrets. Although her time on stage is short, English makes it count, especially with the musical opportunity she is afforded with “How Can Love Survive,” and “No Way to Stop It,” two of the lesser known but haunting and plot-driven songs.

The primary romance , concerns Maria and Georg, who discover they love each other despite there being no plot device to inspire or support such a thing. The joyous peaks of pleasure in this production are delivered by Shaddow. Her exuberantly spunky performance is only a part of what makes us care what’s happening to Maria as she makes the amazing transition from an insecure postulate to a mature young woman who can bravely announce “I Have Confidence,” another of the less well-known but marvelously up-lifting songs.

Shaddow, who was last seen being delightful as Lili in the 2006 Paper Mill Production of Carnival, and as Anne in the 2010 Broadway revival of La Cage aux Folles, has no difficulty charming either the Trapp children or us with the enduring sing-a-longs “My Favorite Things,” “Do Re Mi,” and “The Lonely Goatherd.” Aside from the demands on her lovely and strong soprano voice, Shaddow enlivens the proceedings by teaching the children the scale, out-sewing Scarlett O’Hara when it comes to making clothes from curtains, and gaining the respect of the Captain by refusing to whistle to his tune.

Maria has a hard time for a long time getting any feedback, romantic or otherwise, from the boorish Captain whose psychologically damaging, disciplinarian attitude toward his children is about to be challenged. It takes a while for Davis’s rich and resonant baritone voice to become a factor in the story, but when given the chance to use it, he brings another dimension to his otherwise stolid presence, albeit a nice balance to the surrounding mush.

Entrances and exits and everything in between take on a new meaning when the role is presided over by Edward Hibbert (The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore, Mrs. Warren’s Profession, to name but two of his most recent and unforgettable New York performances) who literally defies you to consider anyone there may be others on stage. He is quite simply marvelous as the flippant and posturing Max, the all-knowing theater agent-about-town.

Chelsea Morgan Stock has a lovely voice and presence and succeeds in making Liesl von Trapp a very real and believable kiss-and-tell teenager. The other children display and deploy their obligatory cutes with commendable credibility — although I don’t know if I approve of them jumping on the elegant furnishings of their home in their boots, despite following the path of their playful governess.

Anthony Fedorov is more than fine as the conflicted young Nazi Rolf who romances the naïve Liesl through a gracefully executed song and dance “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” making it a highlight of the show. Another highlight is the concerted choral singing by the nuns in the opening “Preludium,” as well as during “The Wedding Processional.”

Over the years, there has been criticism directed at this musical for its surplus of goody-goody elements and for its lack of a substantial dramatic core. So as not to provoke any wrath, allow me to submit that a little dramatic tension does happen about five minutes before the end of the show when the Trapp family figures out an escape plan with the Nazis in full pursuit.

A sizable orchestra under the direction of Tom Helm not only provides expert support to the singers but gives the score the lush, full-bodied sound it deserves.

All the technical credits, including evocative settings by James Fouchard, are up to the high standards that mark all productions at this venerable playhouse. I do have one quibble: why is the photo of a blonde Maria on the cover of the program not that of Ms Shaddow, who is surely worthy of an identity of her own.

For a song list, see Curtainup's last review here.

The Sound of Music
Music by Richard Rodgers; Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II; Book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse
Directed and choreographed by James Brennan

Cast: Elena Shaddow (Maria Rainer), Suzanne Ishee (The Mother Abbess), Mary Stout (Sister Berthe, Mistress of Novices), Jeannie Shubitz (Sister Margaretta, Mistress of Postulants), Allison Blackwell (Sister Sophia), Ben Davis (Captain Georg von Trapp), Robert DuSold (Franz, the butler), Joy Franz (Frau Schmidt, the housekeeper), Chelsea Morgan Stock (Liesl von Trapp), Sean McManus (Friedrich von Trapp), Amanda Harris (Louisa von Trapp), Hunter A. Kovacs (Kurt von Trapp), Maya Fortgang (Brigitta von Trapp), Gracie Beardsley (Gretl von Trapp), Anthony fedorov (Rolf Gruber), Donna English (Elsa Schraeder), Edward Hibbert (Max Detweiler), Osborn Focht (Baron Elberfeld), Dennis Holland (Herr Zeller), Nadine Zahr (Baroness Elberfeld), Jenevene Hester (A New Postulant), Christopher Carl (Admiral von Schreiber), Jingles (Hoppy).
Scenic Design: James Fouchard
Costume Coordination & Additional Design: Amanda Seymour
Lighting Design: F. Mitchell Dana
Sound Design: Randy Hansen
Music Director: Tom Helm
Running Time: 2 hours 45 minutes including intermission
Paper Mill Playhouse, 22 Brookside Drive, Millburn, NJ
(973) 376 – 4343
Tickets: $34.00 - $110.00
Performances: Wednesdays at 7:30 PM; Thursdays at 1:30 and 7:30 PM; Fridays at 8 PM; Saturdays at 1:30 and 8 PM; Sundays at 1:30 and 7 PM. From 11/23/12 Opened 11/25/12 Ends 12/30/12
Review by Simon Saltzman based on performance 11/25/12
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