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The Sound of Music
Music by Richard Rodgers, Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse
Directed by Jack O’Brien
The Fox Theatre
April 26, 2016

 

Kerstin Anderson Photo by Matthew Murphy The Sound of Music National Tour

Kerstin Anderson
Photo by Matthew Murphy
The Sound of Music National Tour

The Sound of Music is unquestionably a musical theatre classic.  Since its debut on Broadway in 1959, it has been performed in various productions around the world as well as two live television productions and, of course, the Oscar-Winning movie. I personally have seen so many productions of it that I’ve almost got the show memorized. Audiences generally know what to expect when they see this show. With the new touring production now on stage at the Fox, director Jack O’Brien has brought a good mixture of timelessness and immediacy to this time-honored show, as well as finding a promising young star to lead the cast.

Everyone knows the story, it seems. As Maria (Kerstin Anderson) finds it difficult to fit in at Nonnburg Abbey, the Mother Abbess (Melody Betts) decides the young would-be nun needs to see more of the world. So for that purpose, Maria is sent to be a governess to the seven children of lonely widower Captain Georg Von Trapp (Ben Davis), who since the death of his wife has become more of an authoritarian commander than a father to his children. Maria soon wins her way into the hearts of the children and, eventually, their father as well, despite the romantic efforts of the wealthy widow Elsa Schraeder (Teri Hansen), who also wants to marry the Captain. And then there’s the Captain’s enterprising friend Max (Merwin Foard), who hopes to recruit the children–whom Maria has taught to sing–to perform in a big music festival. And then comes the Nazi occupation of Austria, and the drama that follows.

Kerstin Anderson follows in the footsteps of many a Maria, including stage legend Mary Martin and the movie’s iconic Julie Andrews. Anderson, thankfully, doesn’t try to imitate her famous predecessors, although she has a quirkiness about her that is more comparable to Martin than to Andrews. She also has a youthful, energetic spirit and a great voice. As Maria navigates her road from the convent to the Von Trapps’ villa, Anderson visibly matures and acquires a sense of grace and poise. It’s an impressive performance, although she also occasionally tends to deliver her lines in an over-rehearsed, somewhat artificial manner. For the most part, however, she makes an excellent Maria, and she has great chemistry with Ben Davis’s charming, authoritative but increasingly boyish Von Trapp. Their love duet “Something Good” is very sweetly sung and their showcase dance charged with romantic tension. Davis also gets one of the show’s best moments when he leads his family in singing “Edelweiss” at the concert. There’s also a strong comedic performance by Foard as Max, and Betts as the Mother Abbess radiates kindness and strength, stopping the show with a soaring rendition of “Climb Ev’ry Mountain”. Other standouts in the cast are Paige Silvester as a particularly rebellious eldest Von Trapp daughter, Liesl, and Svea Elizabeth Johnson as the wise, observant daughter Brigitta. The children have a good rapport with Anderson’s Maria, and all the production numbers are well-done, including the energetic “Do Re Mi” and “The Lonely Goatherd”.

Visually, the production is impressive as well. Douglas W. Schmidt’s excellent set is notable for its period authenticity and colorful painted backdrops of beautiful mountain vistas, well-lit by lighting designer Natasha Katz. The costumes by Jane Greenwood are well-crafted and suited to the characters, from the nuns’ habits to Maria’s succession of dresses that range from the frumpy to the elegant. The children’s play costumes, supposedly made by Maria from the curtains in her bedroom, are appropriately whimsical. Maria’s hairstyles also go through a believable progression throughout the production, so kudos to hair designer Tom Watson for that effect.

Overall, the tone of this production strikes a good medium between the classic and the new. There’s a sense of energy and urgency brought to the proceedings, as well as an authentic-seeming 1930’s sensibility and an “old Broadway” style without seeming too dated. It’s not trying to to overly innovative or different. It’s just trying to tell the story and tell it well, and for the most part, this iteration of The Sound of Music achieves that goal. It’s a delightful show.

Ben Davis and cast Photo by Matthew Murphy The Sound of Music National Tour

Ben Davis and cast
Photo by Matthew Murphy
The Sound of Music National Tour

The national tour of The Sound of Music is running at the Fox Theatre until May 8, 2016.

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There has been a lot of hype and talk surrounding the upcoming live broadcast of The Sound of Music, which airs tomorrow night on NBC and stars country music superstar Carrie Underwood as Maria and Stephen Moyer (from HBO’s True Blood) as Captain Von Trapp. I’m looking forward to this production because I think live theatre on television is a great thing. It harks back to the days of other live musical events such as Peter Pan starring Mary Martin and Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella. If this broadcast is successful, I could imagine it leading to more live musical broadcasts in the future, and I hope so. I still keep seeing a lot of skepticism about this production online, though, either because of the casting of Underwood or because people seem to think of this as a remake of the film (which it is not), so I thought I would offer just a little bit of information about this production and what it is, and what it is not.

I know many viewers will be familiar with the movie and not the play, but to quote that great philosopher Yoda—“you must unlearn what you have learned”.   This is The Sound of Music, but in a way you may have never seen before. It’s the same basic story, and there will still be a whole lot of singing, dancing and yodeling, but this is the play, not the film. Here are a few pieces of advice to keep in mind as you watch The Sound of Music Live:

1. “Where’s That Song?” The film adds two songs that Richard Rodgers wrote on his own specifically for that adaptation: “I Have Confidence” and “Something Good” (Oscar Hammerstein II had died before the film was made). Several stage revivals have added these songs as well, but this production will apparently only be using “Something Good”, which was written to replace the original stage show’s beyond bland love duet, “An Ordinary Couple”, a song Rodgers himself apparently wasn’t happy with. Basically, what you will be seeing here, with one exception, are the songs from the 1959 original Broadway production in their original order and context.

2. “New Songs?” Not so New The original stage play contains two very witty numbers for Max and Elsa—“No Way to Stop It” and “How Can Love Survive” that are sorely missed (by me, anyway) in the film. I look forward especially to seeing these great songs being performed by celebrated Broadway stars Christian Borle and Laura Benanti, and bringing an air of sharp, sophisticated humor to the show that wasn’t as apparent in the film.

3. The Same, But Different Several of the songs in the show are in different places in the stage play than they are in the film, such as “My Favorite Things”, “The Lonely Goatherd” (there’s no puppet show), and “Do Re Mi” (same general idea, but it’s earlier in the play). Also, “Edelweiss” is in the play, but only in one of the scenes it appears in on film. The plot is the same as the film, but many of the individual scenes and plot developments are different. While I personally think the film script, for the most part, is superior to the stage script, the stage script when performed well is highly engaging and entertaining. It’s all slightly different, but it’s still The Sound of Music, and if this production lives up to its promise, it should be well worth watching.

4. Carrie Underwood as Maria? Why Not? I was dismayed to read that Underwood has received “hate tweets” because she dared take on a role that has been played in such an iconic fashion by Julie Andrews in the film. Underwood, however, has never claimed to be trying to usurp or imitate Andrews, and in fact, nobody “owns” a role. Andrews (who has had nothing but good things to say about Underwood) was not even the first Maria in The Sound of Music, nor was she the last. There have been many excellent and acclaimed stage Marias, starting with Mary Martin on Broadway in 1959 and including Petula Clark (1981 London Revival), Rebecca Luker (1998 Broadway Revival), Connie Fisher (2006 London Revival), and this production’s Elsa Schraeder, Laura Benanti, who (at age 19) replaced Luker in the ’98 revival. The role has been played by countless actresses of varying levels of notoriety in regional and touring productions, as well.

While Andrews’s name and voice will always be associated with the role for many people, and she was certainly wonderful in the film, this is a classic and much-played role, and Carrie Underwood is in excellent company. Whether she is able to convincingly act the part remains to be seen, but judging from the clips I’ve heard of the newly-released Cast Recording, she’s more than up for the task vocally. She has obviously worked hard to learn to adapt her voice from singing country-pop to singing musical theatre, and all that work has paid off. She sounds great, and I hope she’ll be able make a positive impression with her acting as well.

5. All-Star Cast (and they mean it!) Personally, I would be tuning into this production no matter who played Maria, simply because of the extremely talented supporting cast. Apart from Underwood, Moyer, and the children, this show is full of big-name Broadway veterans. Benanti, Borle and the glorious-voiced Audra McDonald (who plays the Mother Abbess) are all Tony winners, and even the nuns’ chorus is chock full of high-caliber Broadway performers, and even leading ladies like Ashley Brown (Broadway’s original Mary Poppins). There are more Broadway performers in this ensemble than I can easily highlight. This is a theatre geek’s dream, and I wouldn’t miss it for the world, but even non-Broadway fans should know the depth of talent in this production, and that so many of the cast members from the major supporting players to the ensemble are top-quality performers with years of stage experience.

To sum up my advice—if you don’t know anything but the film, please try to put your pre-conceived notions aside and see this production for what it is. Judge it on its own merits—and it seems to have a lot of them. This is promising to be a truly remarkable television event, and I hope it lives up to that promise.

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I just got back from a 10-day trip to the UK, where I was able to soak up the sights and sounds of the thriving London theatre scene, as well as taking in a touring show in Stoke-On-Trent.  I also got to re-acquaint myself with the lovely scenery of the valleys of South Wales.  The highlight, however, was definitely London, which (with all due respect to New York) is my favorite theatre city on Earth.  It has much of the variety and thriving theatre scene of New York in (to my mind) a much more friendly and accessible atmosphere.  I love New York as well, and I would love to get back there someday and have a real Broadway trip, but London will always hold a special place in my heart.  Here are some mini-reviews of the five shows I saw:

The Sound of Music (UK tour), Regent Theatre, Stoke-On-Trent, England

This is a production I had seen before, first at the London Palladium and later in Cardiff, Wales, both starring Connie Fisher as Maria.  I am a big fan of Connie’s, and I really thought she brought something new to the role of Maria, but this time the show’s Maria was played by UK soap actress and West End veteran Verity Rushworth, who I thought played the role extremely well.  Rushworth has a clear, pretty voice and, acting-wise, made for an energetic, almost athletic Maria, and her scenes with the children were a highlight.  There was also excellent supporting work by Jacinta Mulcahy as Baroness Schraeder and Martin Callaghan as Max.  The weak link, however, was Jason Donovan as Captain Von Trapp, who lacked the stage presence and sense of authority that is required for the role, and the production as a whole seemed to have less energy then it had when I saw it before.   Still, it was an enjoyable production overall, and the sets (especially the mountain in the opening and closing scenes) were much improved from the last time I saw the tour.

Ordinary Days–Trafalgar Studios, London

This show (music and lyrics by Adam Gwon, directed by Adam Lenson) was a very small musical with a cast of four, telling the inter-twining stories of four young New Yorkers.  Daniel Boys and Julie Atherton played a young couple going through troubles in defining their relationship, while she dealt with issues from her past, and Alexia Khadime and Lee William-Davis played two very different people who were brought together in friendship by chance.  It was a very well-done show, almost entirely sung-through, with a very clever set (one large white structure with movable pieces that the actors would move around as needed), and universally appealing performances.  Although the entire cast was excellent, Alexia Khadime was the standout for me, with the energy she brought to her character and her powerful voice.  It was also fun to be seeing the show in such a small venue with the cast being so close-up.

End of the Rainbow—Trafalgar Studios, London

This play (written by Peter Quilter and directed by Terry Johnson) is more of an experience than just a show.  It tells the story of Judy Garland’s last time in London, when she was doing a series of concerts at a night club a few months before she died, and works as kind of a concert-within-a-play, with a full band backing Tracie Bennett as Garland in the concert scenes.  Bennett gives what can only be described as a tour-de-force performance.  She doesn’t just play Judy Garland—it’s like she becomes her, and it is such an emotional, physically and vocally demanding role that I really don’t know how she manages to keep coming back and delivering this performance night after night.  It is a truly remarkable feat of acting, and it was an honor to be able to witness it.  Bennett is ably supported by Hilton McRae as Garland’s pianist, Anthony, and by Stephen Hagen as her fiancé, Mickey Deans, and the costumes and sets really add to the late 60’s atmosphere of the piece.  It’s a wonderful, intense theatrical experience, and although the whole cast is wonderful, Bennett’s performance alone is more than worth the price of admission.  If you live in London or plan on going in the next month, I highly recommend seeing this show.  It truly is a must-see.

The Last Five Years—Tabard Theatre, London

This production of Jason Robert Brown’s musical, directed by Drew Baker, starred Lauren Samuels (from BBC TV’s “Over the Rainbow”) and Christopher Pym as a couple recounting their failed relationship, going backwards in time from her perspective and forward in time from his.  It is a very intimate piece of theatre, and was executed very well.  Samuels in particular was outstanding, displaying a convincing American accent and offering a sympathetic portrayal of a frustrated actress in a confusing but exciting relationship.  She also possesses an extremely powerful singing voice that was very well used in this production.  Pym, as her novelist husband, was excellent as well, but I had trouble sympathizing with his character, who just seemed full-of-himself from the start.  The set was simple but effective, and I’ve long been a fan of Jason Robert Brown’s music.  Overall, it was a moving depiction of the building and unraveling of a relationship, with good chemistry between the two leads even though they only actually interact with each other in one scene, in the middle of the show when their timelines come together.

The Wizard of Oz–London Palladium

This is Andrew Lloyd Webber’s new stage version of the classic film, with music and lyrics by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg and additional songs by Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, adapted by Lloyd Webber and Jeremy Sams and directed by Sams.  It stars Danielle Hope as Dorothy, who won the part in the BBC talent show “Over the Rainbow”, and veteran stage and screen star Michael Crawford (the original Phantom of the Opera) as the Wizard.

I’m not sure I can be entirely objective reviewing this particular show, since I watched “Over the Rainbow” online and started a fan forum for Danielle (www.daniellehopeforum.com) that she has since endorsed as her fan club.  Still, I like to think I’m an honest fan, and no matter how much I like a performer, am willing to admit when they give a less-than-stellar performance.  Fortunately, I don’t have to do that this time, since Danielle is truly a delightful Dorothy.  Her performance is very unlike Judy Garland’s in the 1939 film, but thoroughly winning all the same.  Her Dorothy is gutsy, at turns shy and feisty, and even has bits of the whiny teenager at the beginning.  Her story is one of growth, and her rendition of “Over the Rainbow”, occuring very early in the first act, is plaintive and sincere.  Her Dorothy seems a bit distrustful and pessimistic at first, but by the end of the show she is brimming with optimism.  It is a unique take on the character, and for me it really works.  The highlights of the performance for me were her reprise of “Over the Rainbow” in Act Two and the scene where she says goodbye to the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Lion.  In fact, all four actors were impressive in this last scene, and the chemistry between them was delightful and moving.

The other real stand-out in this cast is Hannah Waddingham as the Wicked Witch of the West.  She presents a very fresh take on the character, imbuing her with a sense of gleeful, evil energy, and her new number in the second act, “Red Shoes Blues” is a showstopper.  She is nearly matched by Emily Tierney as a somewhat mischievous Glinda, the Good Witch, and their scenes together are a real comic highlight.  Edward Baker-Duly makes a great macho, deadpan Tin Man, and Paul Keating is a charming, seemingly boneless Scarecrow.  David Ganly as the Lion is given some groaner jokes, but he delivers them well, and the whole trio has excellent chemistry with Danielle’s Dorothy.  There’s also a cute Westie terrier (there are four used in rotation) as Toto.

Michael Crawford also gives a convincing performance as the Wizard, although he isn’t given a lot to do beyond his first act number “Wonders of the World”, which is a nice, melodic addition to the show.  I did think that his Act One closing song “Bring Me the Broomstick” sounded like a rejected song from Phantom of the Opera, though, and it featured Crawford in full-on Phantom voice.  I especially liked his reprise of “Off to See the Wizard” in the second act–it was very touchingly done.  I could see all the weariness and regret in his character, and found it moving.

As for the other aspects of the production, I found the sets and costumes by Robert Jones to be nothing short of spectacular.  There’s a set piece in the second act (the Witch’s Tower) that just sort of unfurls itself onstage, and it was one of the first times in a show where I actually wanted to applaud the set.  There are also some very clever tricks with flying from both of the witches, and the tornado scene is very effectively portrayed, as well.  The costume and set designs also deviate from the film somewhat drastically, and I really liked that, because this comes off as its own new theatrical presentation and not a carbon-copy of the film. I also really liked the orchestrations of the music, which blended themes from both the old and new songs together seamlessly.

This show is by no means high art, but it is a very enjoyable, extremely well-crafted and well-performed show that will surely delight audiences of all ages, and if ALW wishes to, he can use that as a pull-quote on the posters!   I had a great time seeing this show, and I’m sure it will run at the Palladium for a very long time.

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