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Seattle by Jonathan Frank


The Sound of Music and
God of Vengeance

The day after the first play or musical ever written closed, I am sure that plans were made to revive it. Revivals make up a large share of any theatrical season, be it on Broadway, in regional theaters or at the community level. While far too many are complete retreads of all-too-familiar productions, every now and then a revival comes along that adds a fresh spin to an old classic or rediscovers a forgotten gem. This week in Seattle we had one of each with the touring production of The Sound of Music at The Paramount Theatre and God of Vengeance at ACT.

Thanks to a bowdlerized version of The Sound of Music being broadcast on TV for over twenty years, one which removed all traces of darkness and politics from a show which is, admittedly, firmly entrenched in the 'nice' side of the spectrum to begin with, we have grown up with an image of The Sound of Music being all sweetness and light, "Do-Re-Mi's" and "Lonely Goatherds." When I finally watched the film in its entirety a few years ago, I was amazed to discover that (gasp!) there were actually Nazis, political arguments, and traitorous servants amidst the singing children and nuns. It was akin to revisiting Mary Poppins and realizing the movie was actually a treatise against capitalism! Unfortunately, all too many of the approximately 475 productions licensed each year follow the lead of the sanitized TV version and push the sweet while ignore the tart, leading many an audience member to get a theatrical toothache. If ever a show was in need of a major make-over, The Sound of Music was it!

Luckily, director Susan Schulman saw through the treacle and breathed new life into it with a gorgeous revival that opened on Broadway in 1998 and starred Rebecca Luker and Michael Siberry. Without resorting to the major revisions which revitalized the recent Carousel revival, Susan simply brought out elements which were already in the script. The tensions between the pro and anti-Nazi Austrians, the aura of complacency which enveloped so many of the Austrians ("be wise, compromise") and led to the Anschluss, and other darker elements were re-examined and brought closer to the foreground. While the show is still about the postulant nun, Maria, and her quest to bring life and music to a widowed Captain and his seven children, it is now framed as much by the events around them as by the mountains that surround Salzburg.

When I saw it on Broadway in 1998, I was very impressed. I thought the show found a good balance between the sweetness of the early scenes with the kids ("Favorite Things" and "Do-Re-Mi") and the darkness and tensions which drive the show in the second act. While I enjoyed the leads, I was not wild about them, finding Rebecca Luker to be too cold and mature for a 21 year old postulant, and Michael Siberry too angry, displaying little for anyone to fall in love with.

Richard Chamberlain and Meg Tolin
Photo by Joan Marcus
The national tour has, in my opinion, improved upon the Broadway revival in terms of casting and by further tightening of the show. Richard Chamberlain (right, with Meg Tolin), who took over the part of Captain von Trapp on Broadway, is with the show through the end of May, and was a surprising improvement. Instead of being the cold, angry Captain that was present with Michael (and to a certain extent, with Christopher Plummer in the film version), Chamberlain plays the part with military reserve, but displays traces of warmth and humor from the start. We now see the man that two women fall in love with; someone who, as the Baroness Schraeder notes, has glimpses of a fascinating man beneath the fašade. His singing is strong, and one wishes the Captain had more songs.

The show, of course, belongs to Maria, and Meg Tolin, who played the part on Broadway (although not opposite Chamberlain) and was Eliza to Chamberlain's Higgins in the recent My Fair Lady revival, was charming in the role. Finally, I saw a Maria that I believed would twirl through the Austrian Alps, extolling each rock and river she came across. Her Maria was a playful gamine, who is closer to the children in spirit, as well as in age, and brings that youthfulness out in the Captain.

One of the wonderful things Susan Schulman has done with the show is make everybody more human, and that includes the von Trapp children. Not one of them is cloying or overly cute, and all were incredibly strong. The highlight of the show for me, actually, was seeing that Tracy Alison Walsh, who played Brigitta in the Original Broadway Revival, and was my favorite thing in it, is back in the show as Louisa (it is evident that the dry wit of Brigitta's role originated with Tracy. In talking to her at the party after the show, I mentioned how glad I was to see her go up one step in the von Trapp hierarchy. She replied that today it's Louisa, in two more years it will be Liesl, then Maria, then the Mother Abbess, until she finally dies doing the show. Eleven years old and on her way to Noel Coward territory already!).

The rest of the ensemble was strong, with Drew Eshelman giving the oily talent scout, Max Detweiler, a hint of a steel backbone. As the Baroness Schraeder, Rachel de Benedet displayed the typical cunning and quick wit associated with the role, but also found moments of tenderness and resignation.

Overall, the show is very enjoyable and well worth seeing. If you are one of those people (and you know who you are) who is predisposed to disliking the classics no matter how well they are performed or revived, it is doubtful to make you into a convert. But if you find yourself singing along during its annual TV showing, this production is for you.

Now how's this for a plot line for a show. A story about a hypocritical father who runs a whorehouse on the first floor of his flat, while living a pious life upstairs with his wife, who is an ex-whore, and his daughter, whose innocence he guards zealously. The daughter has fallen in love with one of her father's whores, and is having a clandestine relationship with her. The show itself ignites a firestorm of moral and religious crusaders, who not only close down the production, but jail all involved. Sounds like a few productions which have opened in recent memory, but the show in question was actually written 94 years ago!

In 1906, 21 year old playwright Shalom Asch wrote God of Vengeance, which became a world-wide hit and is considered to be the greatest drama of Yiddish theatre. After being performed for 17 years around the world, an English production opened in Greenwich Village and was such a hit that it moved to the Apollo Theatre on Broadway. Fifteen days after opening on Broadway, the theatre's owner, the show's producer and the cast of twelve were indicted by the Grand Jury for "presenting an obscene, indecent, immoral, and impure theatrical production" due to a complaint filed by the Society of the Suppression of Vice, which stated that the play "tend(ed) to the corruption of the morals of the youth."

Interestingly enough, the complaints mainly came from the German Jewish community of New York, who, being wealthier and more assimilated than their tenement brethren, found Yiddish theatre to be an embarrassment and claimed that the play libeled the Jewish religion. Even more intriguing is that little attention was paid to the fact that the play contained the first kiss between two women on the Broadway stage. The judge found against the play and it was the first time American performers were found guilty of presenting immoral public entertainment.

Seventy-seven years later, playwright Donald Margulies, who won the Pulitzer Prize this week for Dinner with Friends, adapted the play and transferred the setting from the streets of Warsaw in 1906 to the tenements of New York in the 1920's. He has does an incredible job of updating the show without sacrificing any of its period feel. The result is a surprisingly timeless story which alternates between being absolutely hysterical and surprisingly touching.


Photo by Chris Bennion
As Jack Chapman, an immigrant who has found his niche as a well-to-do pimp but wants to get back together with God, Matthew Boston (left, with Nike Doukas) is masterful at bringing out all the facets of an incredibly complex character without ever stooping to an obvious stereotype or easy joke. As his whore-turned-wife, Sara, Nike Doukas was incredible and provided the backbone of the show as a woman trying to be all things to the members of her family. The ensemble was well cast, and each brought nuances to what could have been throw-away characters.

The direction, by ACT Artistic Director Gorden Edelstein, was fluid and seamless, and he took perfect advantage of the beautiful two-level set by Hugh Landwehr. I only had two quibbles with the show. While I am well acquainted with the danger of making assumptions, in conferring with other members of the audience, I found the same confusion present elsewhere (so I feel a bit safer mentioning this!) The first problem I had was that, due to hair and accent similarities and coupled with the fact that both characters were introduced very quickly in dimly lit scenes, I was under the impression that the love interest of the daughter (played with surprising tenderness and naivete by Naama Potok) and the older whore (played by Johanna Milamed, who is the closest thing to an antagonist in the show) were one and the same. Also, Rachel Miner, who played the daughter, Rivkele, was giving off signals that she had been sexually abused by her father. Both mistaken assumptions on my part took me to places I'm sure the show did not want me to travel.

These minor quibblings aside, God of Vengeance is a rarity and a breath of fresh air; a revival that not only shows us how little things change, but also how much wonderful theatre is out there waiting to be rediscovered. God of Vengeance runs through May 7th at ACT in Seattle. For tickets contact the box office at 206-292-7676 or online at www.acttheatre.org.




- Jonathan Frank



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