The Sound of Music
"Sondheim is more brilliant and challenging, and grasps more complex subject matter with far greater ease."
Or, you'll say that "Lerner & Loewe drew from far more literary source material."
Or, "Kander & Ebb were better at social commentary."
And Rodgers & Hart? "Well, they were just a lot more grown-up fun."
But if there's a beating heart at the center of pop culture, a large part of it must still be made up of the music of Rodgers & Hammerstein. Or so it seems this month, in Kirkwood, Missouri.
Casey Erin Clark is the newest Maria, a young convent girl who can't stop singing, and David Schmittou is the Austrian sea captain who likes smart military order in all things, in Rodgers & Hammerstein's Sound of Music. And, with Michael Hamilton directing, things go very nicelyit seemed like Ms. Clark (like some of the singing nuns on stage) could barely contain herself on opening night, with a voice that frequently threatened to burst the floodgates, but that may just be a settling-in issue. Meanwhile Mr. Schmittou is all grace and polish as the absentee father of seven. And, to my surprise, my companion for the evening (a die-hard Rodgers and Hart fan) fell under their spell, alternating between smiles and tears as one great song poured forth after another. (Smiles and Tears, coincidentally, was a foreign-release title when the movie first came out, as "the sound of music" didn't seem to make much sense to non-English speakers.)
Clark and Schmittou are very good together, as their love grows; and their study in contrasts is strong enough to hold our interest for all three hours of this legendary work, even with a first act that runs a grueling 100 minutes. And somehow, the pace holds firm right up to intermission, with a stunning rendition of "Climb Every Mountain" sung by Suzanne Ishee as the Mother Abbess.
"You haven't said anything about their performances," my editor came back to say, later. "Well, director Hamilton is sort of 'anti-character,' if you look at this season's Ain't Misbehavin', or his recent Big River. Great acting moments only creep in accidentally, or subversively, in his recent plays, it seems. And so, Mr. Schmittou, so wonderful and heartwarming a few years back as Man in Chair in Drowsy Chaperone, here, and Ms. Clark, who uses her voice to show how her Maria gradually finds self-control and harmony in the von Trapp household, must play the shadows to their advantage. Mr. Schmittou gets the short-end of the stick, in a way, playing the control freak who finds his heart, but he certainly knows the contours of the captain's heart, and we feel them, too, in spite of the archetypal nature of a Rodgers and Hammerstein hero, and the anthemic sheet music they must play out, like spinets. Don't get me wrong, I love the songs, and the show, and even kind of love the character, but I wouldn't want to have to walk in Mr. Schmittou's shoes in a show like this.
The sets are beautiful and detailed, and there sure are a lot of them, designed by Mark Halpin. But, as another set trundled away behind an old-fashioned backdrop, my companion asked, "is that thunder?" "No," I said, "it's the roll-away sets," which compete ruthlessly with singing nuns, and singing children swathed in smartly tailored blue window curtains, courtesy of costumer Lou Bird. Mr. Halpin could stand to borrow five or ten yards of cotton batting from Mr. Bird, to muffle the sets' rolling wheels on the hollow stage floor.
But there's an almost a Pavlovian reaction to the songs of The Sound of Music, as if we might be pre-programmed to love any new production, after all the uncounted Christmastime TV broadcasts of the movie since the 1960s. And the effect is even more pronounced, as director Hamilton has found seven adorable moppets (eight, counting Rolf, the telegram boy) to enliven the proceedings. Heidi Giberson is adorable as the eldest daughter, Liesl; and Phoebe Desilets is just as perfect in her own way as the youngest, Gretl. All the kids in between do well, too, with Julia Schweizer as a gleefully wicked Louisa, and Morgan McDonald as Brigitta, who's very mature in helping Maria see the Captain is in love with her.
Kari Ely has tons of old world charm as the Baroness, and William Thomas Evans (as the concert promoter Max Detwiler) is bright and buoyant. They share a satiric song of political acquiescence, "No Way To Stop It," which also puts an end to the Baroness' wedding plans. Christopher Guilmet gives us the full measure of the pride and the pettiness of fascism as Herr Zeller, and John Flack gets the eeriest moment of the show, as an affable butler who joins the ranks to welcome a German federation, all too easily.
The singing nuns are mostly whimsical and spiritual and heartwarming, after the initial shock of seeing them all emerge from the shadows in their black habits, like nightmarish figures in the dark, in the opening seconds of the show.
You may be surprised at the immense cavalcade of well-known tunes that rush by in the first act, though there's a lot of repetition in the second. And the nuns are a little overpowering in some of their choral singing (lookin' at you, Musical Director Lisa Campbell Scottalthough she may have been told to pump-up the nuns' choral volume as camouflage for all that rolling thunder produced by the wheeled sets). Stages may be able to iron out these sound problems in short order, but a few of those piercing moments of hymn on opening night could have been called The Sound of Shrieking.
Overall, though, the beloved story and its most famous songs are presented in a charming and natural way that really does yield its own harvest of smiles and tears.
Through August 19, 2012, at the Robert G. Reim Theatre, in the Kirkwood Recreational Center, 111 South Geyer Rd. For more information call (314) 821-2407 or visit them online at www.stagesstlouis.org. Book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse.
* Denotes Member, Actors' Equity Association, the union of professional actors and stage managers in the United States.