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Regional Reviews by Gil Benbrook

The Sound of Music
Arizona Broadway Theatre

Also see Gil's review of Irving Berlin's White Christmas


Trisha Hart Ditsworth and John Dooley
Rodgers and Hammerstein's The Sound of Music is suddenly something that everyone seems to be talking about, with the upcoming "live" broadcast of the show on NBC this week starring Carrie Underwood generating a lot of buzz. The production at the Arizona Broadway Theatre may not star a Grammy winning singer but it is a joyous, emotional production with a wonderful cast, colorful sets and costumes and a "live" experience that you just can't get sitting in your living room watching TV.

As just about everyone knows, The Sound of Music follows the story of postulant Maria as she serves as governess for a naval Captain's seven children in Austria once it seems a religious life isn't in her future. The Captain and Maria find themselves falling in love just as the Nazi regime is about to invade Austria and must find a way for their family to escape before the Captain is forced back into service under the Nazis. It is a classic musical with the right balance of humorous scenes, joyful songs, and inspirational moments. The Sound of Music is definitely Rodgers and Hammerstein's most famous show and was actually their last collaboration together, as Hammerstein died less than a year after the show opened on Broadway.

Since the Oscar-winning 1965 film adaptation added some new songs and cut others that were in the stage show, it has led to several different versions of the musical being produced. One includes the two songs written for the film and eliminates the ones that were cut for the movie. Others move the songs around so they match up more closely with the order in the film. The upcoming NBC broadcast looks like it is yet another version, as it will not only include the movie love duet "Something Good" but will also retain the cut songs as well as the version of "Do Re Mi" that was revised for the film with a different ending. Arizona Broadway Theatre appears to be presenting the original 1959 script with the songs exactly as they were written for the original production, including the original version of "Do Re Mi." It is nice to see the show in its original form, even though most theatregoers might be more familiar with the movie script and songs, and a little confused by the inclusion of the three songs that were cut for the film, since none of those songs ever had any life of their own outside of the original production.

Trisha Hart Ditsworth, who scored as Penny Pingleton in ABT's first show this season, Hairspray, plays Maria, and she is a gem. She easily portrays the many layers of Maria—unsure of herself and about what her true calling is, and confused by the connection she has with the Captain, while at the same time finding simple joy in the time she spends with the children. Ditsworth has a lovely voice, which she gets to use on many of the best known songs from the show, and has no problems in handling both the comical and dramatic parts of the role. John Dooley is Captain von Trapp and, while his sternness and stiffness work well with the part of a widowed sea Captain who doesn't quite know the right way to raise his children, I wish he were a little more passionate and a little less stiff once he finds himself falling in love with Maria. He does have a nice connection with Ditsworth and a deep and rich singing voice, which he puts to very good use on "Edelweiss." Hopefully, he will settle into the role a little more and find a bit of the human and humorous side of the part.

Ariana Valdes is excellent as the Mother Abbess. She has a voice that soars on "Climb Every Mountain" but also gets a chance to show off a softer side in her more gentle scenes with Maria, including a lovely duet of "My Favorite Things." The other nuns at the Abbey, played by Mary Jane McCloskey, Stephanie Harter Gilmore and Emily Blake Anderson, provide some stirring vocals and harmonize together beautifully. Jill Tieskoetter is Elsa, the woman the Captain is seeing when Maria first arrives to oversee the children, and Andy Meyers is Max, the Captain's friend. Tieskoetter and Meyers add a nice amount of glamour and humor to the proceedings and also sing two of the less famous songs from the show, the ones that were cut for the film, and do so nicely. The character of Elsa is less harsh and calculating in the stage version than she is in the film and I'm sure audiences will enjoy how Tieskoetter is able to convey the warmer parts of Elsa. Meyers does a fine job with the many comical moments that he brings to the show.

Sarah Powell is the Captain's oldest daughter, Liesl, and Scott Shedenhelm is Rolf the young man she is in love with. They share the nice duet of "Sixteen Going on Seventeen" which includes a fairly elaborate dance routine that is nicely executed. The rest of the children are double cast and, at the performance I attended, were played by Sam Primack, Morgan Goldberg, Andrew Fishencord, Emma Gass, Keira Crouch and Malana Hokaj. All do well with their parts and the required singing. I really like how Emma Gass, who plays Brigitta, effortlessly delivers her lines, which are some of the most important ones of the show, since we learn that Brigitta is the most honest of the children and doesn't mind telling people the truth, even when that is something about Maria and the Captain's budding relationship.

Director James Rio expertly manages the many tasks required in a show that includes seven children, comedy, romance and drama and never lets the proceedings veer into schmaltz. While there isn't a huge amount of dance in the show, choreographer Kurtis W. Overby does a nice job with the various required moments, including the many choreographed musical "performances" when the von Trapp Family is singing as a group. Set designer Nick Mozak provides numerous set pieces, including a simple yet serviceable interior of the von Trapp house, a nice and bright exterior terrace of the house, and an expertly executed courtyard of the Abbey.

Costume designs by Tamara Treat are colorful and impeccably created, with some excellently designed men's suits for the Captain, some nice designs for Elsa, and fun clothing for the children. The use of shadows and light in the lighting design by Tim Monson gives us some breathtaking visuals, especially in the scenes at the Abbey, which work perfectly with Mozak's set design.

There are about a half dozen scenes performed in front of the proscenium curtain, while I'm assuming they were moving some of the larger set pieces into place behind it. I only wish they had used a painted drop like the one used elsewhere in the show of the Austrian mountains instead of a standard black one, which adds nothing to these scenes. Fortunately, with the exception of "Sixteen Going on Seventeen," the majority of these scenes are short.

But that is just one small quibble, as otherwise The Sound of Music at Arizona Broadway Theatre is an almost perfect production of one of the best loved musicals of all time. I'm sure the upcoming broadcast will get a fairly large viewership but there is nothing like seeing this show live in a theatre—and you can't do much better than the production at ABT.

The Sound of Music runs through December 29th at the Arizona Broadway Theatre, 7701 West Paradise Lane in Peoria. Tickets can be ordered by calling (623)776-8400 or at http://azbroadway.org

Music by Richard Rodgers
Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse
Stage Direction: James Rio
Choreography: Kurtis W. Overby
Music Direction: Mark 4man
Scenic Design: Nick Mozak
Lighting Design: Tim Monson
Costume Design: Tamara Treat
Sound Design: Jason Lynn
Stage Management: Rachel Kieras
Artistic Producer and Casting: Cassandra Klaphake
Executive Producer: Kiel Klaphake
Maria Rainer: Trisha Hart Ditsworth
The Mother Abbess: Ariana Valdes
Sister Berthe: Mary Jane McCloskey
Sister Margaretta: Emily Blake Anderson
Sister Sophia: Stephanie Harter Gilmore
Captain Georg von Trapp: John Dooley
Franz: Sam Ramirez
Frau Schmidt: Kim Rickels
Liesl: Sarah Powell
Friedrich: Tommy Cimato/Sam Primrack
Louisa: Daphne Claire Dugan/Morgan Goldberg
Kurt: Christian Bader/Andrew Fishencord
Brigitta: Emma Gass/Delaney Spanko
Marta: Tracie Colliat/Keira Crouch
Gretl: Malana Hokaj/Corinne Seaver
Rolf Gruber: Scott Shedenhelm
Elsa Schraeder: Jill Tieskoetter
Max Detweiler: Andy Meyers
Herr Zeller: Darren Friedman
Baron Elberfeld: Edward Miskie
Frau Zeller: Katherine Anderson
Baroness Elberfeld: Kathleen Berger
A new postulant: Brielle Amrein
Admiral von Schreiber: John Sipple
Ensemble: Brielle Amrein, Katherine Anderson, Kathleen Berger, Madison Cichon, Darren Friedman, Edward Miskie, Sam Ramirez, Kim Rickels, John Sipple


Photo: Arizona Broadway Theatre

--Gil Benbrook


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