Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

A Formidable Production of
The Sound Of Music

Also see Richard's review of The Merry Wives of Windsor

The hills of San Mateo County are alive with the sounds of Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein, Howard Lindsey and Russell Crouse's The Sound of Music at the San Mateo Performing Arts Center. This classic musical is being presented by Broadway By the Bay with a top flight cast of singers and dancers as the second show of the 2003 season. I have seen eleven productions of this show over the years, including the original presentation in 1960 at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre with Mary Martin, Theodore Bikel, Kurt Kaszner, Marion Marlowe and Patricia Neway. The Sound of Music ran for 1443 performance and took home a Tony for Best Musical plus Tonys for Mary Martin and Patricia Neway. There was a successful revival of the musical in 1998 that ran 533 performances at the Martin Beck Theater. Rebecca Luker played Maria, and she was supported by Michael Siberry and Patti Cohenour. Richard Chamberlain also made a good living playing the captain in a touring company several years ago.

Critics have always dismissed the show's sweet, sentimental story but audiences continue to flock to see the show more than four decades after its original opening. It continues to play in every regional theater company's schedule simply became it is a sure bet for audience attendance. The current production is as good a production as most of the touring companies I have seen.

The Sound of Music had a long history before it saw the light of day on a tryout in New Haven in the fall of 1959. The original director Vincent Donahue saw a German film called "The Trapp Family Singers" and was so impressed, he decided to remake the movie for the stage and have Mary Martin star as the singing leader of the family. Mary, her husband Richard Halliday and producer Leyland Hayward thought it would be a great idea for a stage play featuring authentic Trapp family songs. They asked Rodgers and Hammerstein to contribute one original song.

Upon further reflectionion, the group decided a completely fresh score by Richard and Oscar would be better. However, at the time, the famous composers were working on Flower Drum Song. Everyone waited for over a year until the San Francisco musical was completed.. The composers then worked on their last musical together. Oscar was very ill at the time, suffering from stomach cancer. The show went from its first pre-Broadway opening in New Haven on October 5 to Boston where it opened on the 14th; on the 15th Oscar wrote the lyrics for "Edelweisse," which was the last song the two wrote together.

The Sound of Music's plot is well known. It is based loosely on the story of Austria's Trapp Family Singers and their escape from the Nazis when the Germans incorporated Austria into the Third Reich. It is based on the true story of Maria Rainer who started out as a young postulant in a nunnery and then went to work as governess for the children of army captain Baron Georg von Trapp. Of course, the two fall in love, the girl leaves her order and they get married. The couple form a family singing group and they escape from Austria just after the takeover. All of this is told in a sentimental and sweet way so it becomes a musical comedy rather then a stark drama. Even the ending is fanciful as the Captain and Maria and their seven children troop up a snowy mountain path in the high Alps dressed in lederhosen and carrying small napsacks on their backs to freedom in Switzerland.

Director Greg MacKellan has invigorated the storyline and the characters with a dynamic and witty inner life. The opening of the musical is lovely as 21 actresses, dressed in nun habits, walk up the outer aisles of the theater with lighted candles onto the big stage of the performing arts center to sing the exalted, ecclesiastical "Dixit Dominus." (Richard Rodgers, a member of the Jewish faith, obtained the services of the head of music and the nuns at Manhattanville College, New York, to help write the searing music). Each scene, from Maria as the young postulant to governess of the children to marriage, is smoothly integrated. This is an amazing accomplishment with a cast of over 40 persons.

Deborah Ballesteros-Spake is superb as Maria. She reminds me of a young Jane Powell in both acting and singing. Deborah is a feisty little thing with a great bell clear voice. She makes the book's silliness work in spite of itself. The artist successfully leaps from "we just met" to "we're about to be married" and she makes it plausible. Ms. Spake is outstanding in the opening number, "The Sound of Music," and charming in "My Favorite Things." Michael Gaffney makes a splendid Captain Georg von Trapp. He boasts an impressive dignity laced with melancholy. His rendition of "Edelweiss" is lovely.

Margo Schembre as the Mother Abbess is warm and sympathetic. Her rendering of "Climb Every Mountain" is inspiring with a smooth and powerful voice. The Sound of Music kids are terrific. It is such a delight to find that the seven children have distinct personalities and they have not been cast just according to height. Shawna Ferris as Liesl, who is just on the threshold of womanhood, is hilariously aggressive in the "Sixteen Going On Seventeen" duet with Aidan Diskin as Rolf the young Nazi-wannabe. The folk dance of the duo choreographed by Berle Davis is charming. The children are marvelous in "So Long, Farewell" and "The Lonely Goatherd."

The worldly outsiders, sophisticated Elsa Schraeder (Stephanie Rhoads) and the comically calculating Max Detweiler (Michael Cronin), show what is happening to Europe in the late '30s by their chilling proclamation that there is "No Way To Stop It." They are also wonderful in the duet "How Can Love Survive?"

The full orchestra under the direction of Mark Hanson is very good and the sets from The Set Company are excellent. Costumes from the Fullerton Civic Light Opera Company look fresh.

The Sound of Music closed on August 3rd.

Broadway By The Bay's final musical of he 2003 season will be Leonard Bernstein/Stephen Sondheim's West Side Story which opens on September 26 and runs thru October 12. Tickets can be obtained by calling 650-579-5568 ext 1 or visiting

Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema

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