Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
It is often noted that The Sound of Music falls below the stature of what are considered Rodgers and Hammerstein's four masterworks: Oklahoma!, Carousel, South Pacific and The King and I. Perhaps so: after all, that quartet is among the crowing achievements of American musical theater. To be a notch below still makes The Sound of Music a totally wonderful show, with a strong book, gorgeous music, and compelling characters. In the right hands, The Sound of Music should be a grand event, and the production at the Ordway is in all the right hands.
The Sound of Music, the final Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, was a big hit and 1960 Tony Award winner. It ascended to even greater fame through the hugely successful Oscar winning 1965 film, still a favorite on DVD and in sing-along screenings. Thanks to the Ordway, Twin Cities audiences who know it mainly through the movie, or the 2013 television production, can now experience the joy of The Sound of Music in live performance.
The show is based on the true life of Maria von Trapp, though Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse's book takes dramatic liberties that somewhat alter the events and condense the story into a single year. Set in 1938 Austria, the orphaned Maria is a postulate who, though awash in piety and purity, does not seem to be cut out for convent life. To experience the world outside the convent walls, the Mother Abbess sends Maria to work as a governess for the seven children of widower Captain van Trapp. The Captain rules his brood as he ruled his naval command, demanding strict order and forbidding any frivolity, including music. Maria changes all that for the children. Through them, she changes both the heart and mind of the Captain as well, in spite of his relationship with a baroness that looks headed toward marriage.
Disturbed by unfamiliar pangs of love, Maria retreats to the abbey, but the Mother Abbess sends her back to face her feelings, in the stirring "Climb Every Mountain." As love follows its natural course, the growing menace of Nazi Germany's annexation of Austria increasingly touches the van Trapp household, turning neighbor against neighbor and threatening the family's safety. The musical gifts Maria has unleashed in the children become the mechanism of their escape across the border to freedom. As it is well known that the real van Trapps immigrated to the United States, successfully touring and recording as a family singing group, I hope I am absolved of not inserting a spoiler alert above.
The lead roles of Maria and the Captain are handled by Billie Wildrick and Dieter Bierbrauer, and it is hard to find better casting. Wildrick and Bierbrauer co-starred in last year's holiday production at the Ordway, A Christmas Story. Good as they were then, they truly shine this time around. Both have beautiful voices that do full justice to beloved songs, Maria's "My Favorite Things," "Do-Re-Mi," and the euphoric title song, the Captain's hymn to his homeland, "Edelweiss," and together in a lovely less familiar song (because it was cut from the movie), "An Ordinary Couple." Wildrick brings a frisky playful exuberance to the role that is as irresistible to the audience as it is for the Captain's seven children, while also conveying sensitivity to the unique needs of each child. She and Bierbrauer have a chemistry together that makes the blossoming of their love an inevitability. The scene in which Captain Van Trapp recognizes the folly of his militant parenting style, and is able to embrace his children, can be mawkish, but as played by Bierbrauer it is deeply moving.
Each of the seven children are played to perfection. Caroline Innerbichler as the eldest, Liesl, is the ingénue of the piece, and offers the right balance and innocence and verve as she and appealing Matthew Rubbelke as love interest Rolf Gruber sing and dance about the hazards of being "Sixteen Going on Seventeen." Natalie Tran, that pint-sized actress with a record of scene-stealing (as the Star Keeper in Artistry's Carousel and as Cindy Lou Who in Children's Theater's How the Grinch Stole Christmas) does it again as Brigitta Von Trapp, the bold truth teller among the children, with the wisdom to move adults.
In featured roles, Kersten Rodau is splendid as the jaded Baroness willing to make accommodations to the life's twists and turns, and James Detmar brings both warmth and cynicism to the role of Max, the Captain's friend who, as a music agent, "discovers" the talented von Trapp family. In two numbers together, "How Can Love Survive?" and "There's No Way to Stop It," their characters provide the social and political context in which the love between Maria and the Captain takes root. Rodau and Detmar bring a satiric edge that makes the most of these lesser known songs.. The invaluable Wendy Lehr as the von Trapp's housekeeper, and Tod Petersen as the Captain's butler make their small supporting roles into little gems.
As the Mother Abbess, Tammy Hensrud lends her powerful voice to the inspirational "Climb Every Mountain," and provides a sense of spiritual grounding that enables her to counsel Maria so wisely. Along with a trio of nuns, she moves the charming "(How Do You Solve a Problem Like) Maria" into a spirited and affectionate debate. There are three occasions where the ensemble of nuns sing together with lofty choral harmonies that can only be described as glorious.
All design work is first rate, from costumes to sets to lighting to sound. I was especially struck by the darkened stone walls of the abbey that gradually reveal the multi-colored light cast on them through unseen stained glass windows, until the culminating wedding scene in which the stained glass is visible, looming over the ceremony as if to cast upon it the greatest of blessings.
Though The Sound of Music may be well known to you, do not make the mistake of thinking this show is old hat. As mounted in this production, the Ordway has made it a new and quite special offering for the holidays. Though it is not a story about the holidays, per se, its themes of faith and of finding one's inner light are a welcome reminder of what the season is about.
The Sound of Music continues at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts through January 2, 2016. 345 Washington Street, Saint Paul, MN. Tickets from $126.00 - $46.00, $34.00 Standing Room Only. For tickets call 651 224-4222 or go to Ordway.org.
Music: Richard Rodgers; Lyrics: Oscar Hammerstein II; Book: Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, suggested by "The Story of the Trapp Family Singers"; Director: Gary Briggle; Choreography: Bob Richard; Musical Director and Conductor: Raymond Berg; Set Design: Kenneth Foy; Costume Design: Lynda L. Salsbury; Lighting and Projection Design: Dan Darnutzer; Sound Design: Zach Williamson; Hair and Make-Up Design: Robert A. Dunn; Props Design: Rick Polenek; Production Manager: Andrew G. Luft; Technical Director: Jason Allyn-Schwerin; Associate Music Director: Andrew Bourgoin; Casting: Reid Harmsen; Stage Manager: Sharon Bach
Cast: Dieter Bierbrauer (Captain Georg von Trapp), Bella Blackshaw (Louisa von Trapp), James Detmar (Max Detweiler), Chloe Lou Erickson (Gretl von Trapp *), J.P. Fitzgibbons (Admiral von Schreiber), Tammy Hensrud (Mother Abbess), Susan Hofflander (Sister Sophia), Caroline Innerbichler (Liesl von Trapp), Wendy Lehr (Frau Schmidt), Peter Moore (Herr Zeller), Quinn Morrissey (Friedrich von Trapp), Dee Noah (Sister Margaretta), Tod Petersen (Franz), Kersten Rodau (Baroness Elsa Schraeder), Matthew Rubbelke (Rolf Gruber), Carl Schoenborn (Baron Elberfeld), Natalie Tran (Brigitta von Trapp), Janet Hayes Trow (Sister Berthe), Nate Turcotte (Kurt von Trapp), Mabel Weisman (Gretl von Trapp *),
Ensemble: Lisa Bartholomew-Given (dance captain), Kate Beahen, Debra Berger, William Gilness, Elena Glass, Reid Harmsen, Elizabeth Hawkinson, Suzi Juul, Jill Sandager, Randy Schmeling.