Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: New Jersey

The Paper Mill is Alive With The Sound of Music

Also see Bob's review of Othello

When it comes to staging large scale revivals of major Broadway musicals, Paper Mill Playhouse has few equals. There is nothing that Paper Mill can produce to better please and delight its suburban audiences. So when that major revival is Rodgers and Hammerstein's well loved and vastly popular The Sound of Music, and it is as well staged and performed as it is in its current revival, there is cause for joy.

In regard to the book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, it should be noted that this is an intelligent musical that deals with important issues and is sophisticated in ways for which it is not always given credit. For example, this is a musical in which music in and of itself plays a major role in the story and deeply affects and even transforms its major characters. And I do not have reference here to musical careers despite the eventual emergence of the von Trapp Family Singers.

The cast is very strong. Amanda Watkins is a likeable, believable Maria with a lovely singing voice. She beautifully conveys Maria's growth from precocious novitiate to rapidly maturing young woman.

Robert Cuccioli is a tower of strength as Captain von Trapp. Watch how smoothly and believably his anger at Maria turns instantly into remorse when he realizes that she has brought joy into his children's lives. His excellent singing of "Edelweiss" is molded to the dramatic requirements of the story.

Donna English is exceptionally fine as Elsa Schraeder, von Trapp's intended. Both dramatically and vocally, she is ideal in this role. Ed Dixon brings a lot of verve to the role of the opportunistic Max Detweiler and joins delightfully with Ms. English to sing the score's two deliciously acerbic songs ("How Can Love Survive?" and "No Way To Stop It"). Cuccioli joins in on the latter.

Meg Bussert performs well as the Mother Abbess, although her "Climb Every Mountain" is somewhat forced. Elizabeth Lundberg is an especially natural and easy to like Liesl, and Mark Willett as her fledgling Nazi suitor is strong in a difficult, largely unpleasant role. This role likely gave the creators a lot of trouble as it is a mix of romantic male ingénue and hateful Nazi. Their dance to "Sixteen Going on Seventeen" is performed with aplomb.

There is not a weak link in the 33 member cast. And for this and much more, credit must go to director-choreographer James Brennan. He has directed smoothly and made this large complex show feel effortless. All of the dramatic and musical highlights register strongly. Additionally, he has eliminated some of the saccharine which mars The Sound of Music for some. Brennan has accomplished this by casting the roles of the six von Trapp children (those other than Liesl) with youngsters who by and large are not overly stage cute and deliver their lines without too much of an attitude of "aren't we adorable?"

One small caveat. Amanda Watkins should tone down her hoydenish version of "The Lonely Goatherd." I know that Maria is tomboyish, but her hee-haw mugging here is not in keeping with any other aspect of her performance. It was so jarring that it had me thinking of Annie Get Your Gun. As for whatever claque organized the rhythmic clapping during this number ...

The children sometimes could not be readily heard, and they (especially, Brigitta) have a large amount of plot to convey. However, it seems preferable to miss some of the words from both adult and child cast members than to be blasted with over-amplified, distorted sound.

While this production is not nearly as lavish as the original, it is large scale and quite lavish enough. As is almost always the case with Paper Mill's brilliant set designer Michael Anania, it is also tasteful and eminently playable. I particularly enjoyed the set for Maria's nanny bedroom with its suggestion of odd corners in some less than desirable corner of the mansion.

The costumes by Cathleen Edwards appear flawless. Musical Director Tom Helm's tempi sound right, and the balance between orchestra and singers is fine.

The production uses the songs that Richard Rodgers wrote for the film version. Their inclusion does not seem to do any harm, and the songs are pleasant enough ("I Have Confidence" and "Something Good"). While I hate to see any of the original songs dropped, I must admit that "An Ordinary Couple" is pretty weak Rodgers and Hammerstein (a mild variation of the Kern-Hammerstein treasure "The Folks Who Live on the Hill").

At the Sunday night opening, Paper Mill was filled with children. I'm certain that any number were well behaved. Many others were not. The noise and the kicking of the backs of seats was not conducive to allowing others to fully appreciate the work at hand. At intermission, a number of seats had been vacated by some families. In at least one case, a family was asked to leave by house staff. At the conclusion of the show, I saw one little girl sleeping soundly in her seat.

The Sound of Music is a nearly three hour long musical. A notice is posted to the effect that children under four will not be admitted. I do not know if this rule is being enforced. I would like to suggest that parents and guardians use common sense. If you know that your children cannot sit quietly through a three hour show, do not bring them. Do not bring younger children to evening performances. Have consideration for the artists, other members of the audience and the children themselves.

In any event, The Sound of Music is a terrific adult show for all family members who are old enough to appreciate full length and full scale Broadway musicals. Paper Mill is in top form doing what it does best and it is now the place to be for those who love classic American musicals.

The Sound of Music continuing through December 14, 2003 at the Paper Mill Playhouse, Brookside Drive, Millburn, NJ 07041. Box Office: 973-376-4343; online:

The Sound of Music
Music by Richard Rodgers; Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II; Book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse; directed and choreographed by James Brennan.

Cast (in order of appearance): Amanda Watkins (Maria); Meg Bussert (Mother Abbess); Gina Ferrall (Sister Berthe); Jessica Mary Murphy (Sister Margaretta); Joyce Campana (Sister Sophia); William Solo (Franz); Robert Cuccioli (Captain von Trapp); Joy Franz (Frau Schmidt); Elizabeth Lundberg (Liesl); Daniel Plimpton (Friedrich); Krista Pioppi (Louisa); Nicholas Jonas (Kurt); Allison Brustofski ((Brigitta); Tiffany Giardina (Marta); Caroline London (Gretl); Mark Willett (Rolf); Donna English (Elsa Schraeder); Ereni Hrousis (Ursula); Ed Dixon (Max); Osborn Focht (Herr Zeller); Michael Hayward-Jones (Baron Elberfeld); Sarah Jebian (Baroness Elberfeld); Christy Boardman (Postulant); Robert Stoeckle (Admiral von Schreiber); and Jacquelyn Baker; Carey Brown; Scott Duquette; Cecily Kate; Peter Kidd; Alison Mahoney; Jean Marie; Michael C. O'Day; Kristen Beth Williams

Photo: Gerry Goodstein

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Bob Rendell

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