Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Set in 1937, The Sound of Music follows the story of postulant Maria who, once it seems a religious life isn't in her future, serves as a governess for a naval captain's seven children in Austria. Captain von Trapp and Maria find themselves falling in love just as Hitler's regime is about to invade Austria, and they must find a way for their family to escape before the Captain is forced back into service under the Nazis.
With a score that is full of crowd-pleasing songs, The Sound of Music has one of the best scores by Richard Rodgers (music) and Oscar Hammerstein II (lyrics). The book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse is just about perfect, with dialogue that is succinct and scenes that are short but distinct; all are additive and important to the story. The music and dialogue also all have a perfect balance of humor and drama which is important for a show with so many joyful, joyous and inspirational moments. It's easy to see why this is Rodgers and Hammerstein's most famous show.
Jeff Whiting's incisive direction and the excellent cast ensure the emotional moments ring true, while not shortchanging or downplaying the many naturally funny lines in the script. Whiting also makes great use of the Phoenix Theatre Main Stage space to provide swift scene changes, and he stages many important scenes downstage to allow for an up close, intimate and personal connection to transpire between the cast and the audience. This works especially beautifully for the final moment of the show which, in the more than a dozen productions of this musical I've seen, has always been set upstage and far away from the audience. His choreography adds some fun touches throughout, especially in the performance numbers in the show as well as a gorgeously danced "Sixteen Going on Seventeen."
As Maria, Trisha Ditsworth is simply perfect. I saw her play this role six years ago at Arizona Broadway Theatre, where she also excelled, but the added years of experience and personal growth seem to have made her portrayal even richer, with an expressive nature and a keen ability to show the nuance and depth of the character. Maria learns and grows over the course of the show and Ditsworth beautifully depicts those changes. She also portrays a lovely, natural and realistic connection with the seven children in the cast while also showing, at first, confusion and a slight discomfort with the Captain, making those scenes ring true. I've seen Ditsworth in probably a dozen shows over the past six years and she is always impressive, with a singing voice that is clear and strong. Her portrayal of Maria is superb.
As Captain von Trapp, Mark Epperson doesn't fare quite as well, but he still manages to deliver a capable, winning performance. Epperson's measured line delivery and stiff demeanor convey someone who is more at home overseeing men on a ship than a family of children, but his portrayal is lacking, somewhat, the sense of warmth that we need to see is underneath the Captain's strong exterior. Only later, once the Captain and Maria are together, does Epperson show a fully fleshed out person. Like Maria, the Captain also changes, and Epperson is quite good at showing us the growth and understanding the character goes through, and his singing voice is warm and deep. His delivery of "Edelweiss" is quite moving.
Joy Lynn Jacobs is excellent as the Mother Abbess, instilling the role with a clear sense of authority but also letting us see there is love, care, kindness, and even a sense of playfulness underneath. That sense of joy and fun comes through in the duet she shares with Ditsworth's Maria, "My Favorite Things," while her steadfast, serious and strong side comes soaring through with a completely effective performance of "Climb Every Mountain."
In supporting roles, Julia Haase and Rusty Ferracane add levity to the show as Elsa, the woman the Captain is seeing when Maria first arrives to oversee the children, and Max, the Captain's friend. Ferracane has perfect comic timing as well as a large amount of warmth as the lovable Max, while Haase is both charming and calculating as Elsa.
With a winning stage presence and an abundance of exuberance, Elyssa Blonder is a joy as the Captain's eldest daughter Liesl, and Ryan Ardelt is appealing as the young man she falls for, Rolf. Their duet "Sixteen Going on Seventeen" is endearing, and their ability to navigate through Whiting's fairly elaborate series of dance steps is quite impressive, creating a crowd-pleasing moment. The young actors who play the six other Von Trapp children alternate at performances and the ones who performed on opening night were all quite good.
Kathleen Richards, Nellie Shuford, and Anne-Lise Koyabe are a joy as three of the nuns at the abbey. Their performance of "Maria" is infused with wit and love, and Richards and Shuford make every line they have count as the two nuns who feel very differently about Maria. As the Captain's two main house staff members, Tony Blosser and Lauren Berman add depth to these small roles which is quite impressive.
As usual for a Phoenix Theatre production, the creative aspects for this production are stellar. Robert Kovach's scenic design uses some impressive and large set pieces and an always present, and gorgeous, backdrop of the Alps to firmly set the location of each scene while also providing quick set changes. Daniel Davisson uses warm colors and plenty of cool shadow tones in his lighting to echo the playfulness, the comedy and most importantly, the serious nature of the story. Cece Sickler's costumes and Kelly Yurko's hair and make-up designs are period perfect and beautiful. Dave Temby's sound design is crystal clear, with appropriate sound effects that add ambiance to the show, and Alan Ruch's music direction derives some gorgeous harmonies from the cast, especially in the opening sequence and the wedding procession, where the large female ensemble delivers some stunning and stirring vocals. The only slight downside is Pasha Yamotahari's dialect coaching which, while appreciated since it adds some authenticity to the show, isn't always consistent across the cast and is occasionally a bit off-sounding when most of the actors speak with only occasionally accented words.
The Phoenix Theatre Company production of The Sound of Music is joyous and emotionally rich, with a winning cast, distinct direction, and rich and gorgeous creative elements. This classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical is in good hands at Phoenix Theatre.
The Sound of Music runs through December 29, 2019, at The Phoenix Theatre Company, 1825 N Central Avenue, Phoenix AZ. For tickets and information, visit phoenixtheatre.com or call 602-254-2151
Director/ Choreographer: Jeff Whiting
*Courtesy of Actors' Equity Association, the union of professional actors and stage managers in the U.S.