Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Tonight's Theater: The Sound of Music

THE SOUND OF MUSIC is the show I know better than any other in musical theater.

As a young child I saw it with Sally Ann Howes in the '70s, with Anna Maria Alberghetti in the '80s, and Dale Kristien (of L.A.'s PHANTOM OF THE OPERA) in the '90s. I also appeared in two different productions, in school and community theater, so it's a play I know inside and out.

I'm thus very pleased to say that the national revival tour of THE SOUND OF MUSIC, currently playing at Segerstrom Hall in Costa Mesa, is the best production I've ever seen of the beloved musical. Like the 2010 revival of SOUTH PACIFIC, the show feels fresh and decidedly un-tired, bringing new perspectives and interpretations to very familiar material.

Newcomer Kerstin Anderson is a gangly, slightly awkward but ebullient Maria, who gradually matures into a confident woman, and she's matched by handsome Ben Davis as a very romantic Captain Von Trapp. His Captain is less frosty, more deeply wounded by loss; when his reserve is finally punctured one can almost feel the anguish and relief simultaneously pouring out of him, followed by pure joy.

Paige Silvester plays Liesl on the verge of being either a real problem child or a lovely young lady; she could go either way, and it will entirely depend on whether caring adults step in before it's too late. Her Liesl hangs back in the first two songs, "Do Re Mi" and "The Lonely Goatherd," clearly "too cool for school," participating reluctantly to humor her younger siblings, till she's eventually won over. It's a great example of a performer and director using staging to bring a creative take to the same lines which have been performed for close to six decades.

The show finds the deep notes in the story and the performances, with one of the most profound moments in the show coming at the very end; as the Von Trapp family leaves the abbey, I expected Maria to embrace the Mother Abbess, but instead she throws herself at her mentor's feet, in gratitude, grief, and supplication, receiving a blessing before she follows her new family over the mountain.

I also found poignance in small touches, such as Gretl (Audrey Bennett) carrying a doll with her as the family begins their walk over the mountains. It's always struck me how sad and scary it must have been for the children to leave everything they knew and owned behind, and seeing Gretl carrying the doll -- which I believe had just been given to her when the newly married Von Trapps returned from their honeymoon -- was a touch I don't remember seeing in any previous production.

The Captain's reaction to hearing his children sing for the first time was also unusually moving as performed by Davis, and his performance of "Edelweiss," his voice breaking after he pauses to look at the Nazi flags hanging as a backdrop, was a highlight.

The staging also gives an improvisational feel to "Do Re Mi," "The Lonely Goatherd," and the final concert version of "So Long Farewell." In the first two songs there's a real sense of Maria trying to make up the words for the children as she goes, and "So Long Farewell," sung as the family prepares to flee, was terrifically staged, with Maria whispering a plan to Liesl and the children nervously looking at each other as again they put the number together on the fly.

The revival for the most part uses the original stage show's song placements and score, including two songs dropped for the movie, "How Can Love Survive" and "No Way to Stop It." The one big exception is that the theatrical version's love song "An Ordinary Couple" was dropped in favor of the song Richard Rodgers wrote for the film, "Something Good," but since "Something Good" is the decidedly superior song, I think that was a wise decision. There was a lovely reprise of "Something Good" at the conclusion of the beautifully staged wedding sequence.

With Maria being a candidate to be a nun, religion has always been a significant part of the show, but I felt this production went a step further, somehow managing to more strongly convey faith as an essential aspect of the characters' lives. This includes the wedding sequence, as the children, comprising the wedding party, enter, kneel, and make the sign of the cross. The attention to such details and fidelity to the story and characters is particularly refreshing in an era when some prefer to turn their eyes away from religious faith. Incidentally, the Latin choral music in the wedding scene was a favorite for me to sing "back in the day," and it sounded wonderful here.

The children were all strong singers, with the concert version of "Do Re Mi" ("Jam and Bread") being another highlight. At times they were slightly quiet, but there were never any notes that were clunkers. This was a group of singing children who were extremely well trained. The boys (Jeremy Michael Lanuti and Austin Levine) were especially engaging personalities.

I was disappointed that Ashley Brown, who originated the role of the Mother Abbess in this tour, was not in the show when it arrived in Costa Mesa; I've had the privilege of seeing Brown, Broadway's MARY POPPINS, sing at Disney events, and her "Feed the Birds" is always a showstopper.

That said, Melody Betts was a fine Mother Abbess, though I confess I struggle a bit with colorblind casting when it comes to history and logic. Just as I was confused by a black Queen Victoria in MARY POPPINS, it took me mentally out of the show pondering how a black woman became the head of a convent in 1930s Austria. However, when she began singing my mind stopped wandering over such matters and I simply enjoyed her soaring voice!

Merwin Foard was a good Uncle Max. Teri Hansen might have been the only semi weak link in the show as the Baroness, as it was hard to see anything the Captain could have liked about her. Their only commonality seemed to be they were part of the same social set. I thus appreciate how quickly the Baroness is disposed of in the stage production; the Captain realizes they think differently in the song "No Way to Stop It," Maria returns, and boom, Elsa is gone.

The set design was superb, and one of the joys of modern-day smooth, quick computerized set changes is that shows such as THE SOUND OF MUSIC are able to edit out the "crossover" scenes, those little bits of business in front of the curtain which do nothing to advance the story but were created to have something happening on stage while the sets were being pushed around. (One example would be in the original show there's a sequence in front of the curtain where the children are getting ready for the party, tying sashes on dresses and practicing dancing. In fact, in this production they wear their sailor uniforms to the party, which was different.) The action flows more smoothly and "cinematically," as the director of SOUTH PACIFIC said, and I don't have any issue with the lack of complete fidelity to the original script.

I've seen a dozen or so stage productions in the last few years, and I would place THE SOUND OF MUSIC in the top tier along with SOUTH PACIFIC, WHITE CHRISTMAS (one of the most unexpectedly delightful surprises ever), WEST SIDE STORY, and THE LION KING. I highly recommend this touring production. A two minute "sizzle reel" can be found on the tour media page, along with a shorter musical montage video.

Update: There was one negative aspect about the performance at Segerstrom Hall, and that is that many patrons brought alcoholic beverages and glass water bottles into the theater after intermission. This meant that we were distracted by the strong smell of alcohol all around us (we're non-drinkers, so it's not a pleasing aroma), the noise of glass bottles tipping over and rolling multiple times on the hard floor, and the general distractions of people around us sipping away as though they were in a movie theater.

I assumed this was an aberration so didn't initially write about it, but I've just received an email from Segerstrom indicating "We have actually recently changed our policy and now allow drinks into the theater for many of our performances, including Broadway productions. Allowing drinks into the theater is now more commonplace in the industry. So far, audiences have been very receptive to the change."

Frankly, I'm floored. I don't spend $50-100 for a theater ticket to be distracted by people who can't manage to finish consuming their drinks during intermission. I've been attending theater my entire life and never run into this. Have others found this is actually now commonplace?

I'm going to be investigating other theater venues such as the Pantages and inquiring about their policies. I've seen virtually all the shows reviewed below at Segerstrom in the last several years, but I have no desire to do so sitting in the equivalent of a bar, so I may be rethinking future patronage.

Update: Segerstrom's own FAQ admits that drinking is a distraction for patrons and performers, in contradiction of their policy. So is it a distraction or isn't it? It obviously was for me.

The Pantages website indicates no alcohol is allowed inside the theater.

August 2nd Update: Segerstrom has now updated their FAQ and removed the language about drinking being a distraction for patrons and performers.

Update: Positive reviews from the Orange County Register and the Los Angeles Times.

Related posts: Tonight's Theater: The Phantom of the Opera; Tonight's Theater: My Fair Lady; Tonight's Theater: South Pacific (October 14, 2010); Tonight's Theater: South Pacific (October 22, 2010); Tonight's Theater: Beauty and the Beast; Tonight's Theater: Mary Poppins; Tonight's Theater: West Side Story; Tonight's Theater: A Christmas Carol; Tonight's Theater: White Christmas; Tonight's Theater: The Lion King; Tonight's Theater: 42nd Street; Tonight's Theater: Wicked.


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