SARATOGA SPRINGS — The Friday night performance of The Sound of Music was a night of momentous beginnings. In addition to being opening night of the production, this was the premiere production of Saratoga Springs Arts Council, Utah’s newest theatre company.
The Sound of Music is Rodgers and Hammerstein‘s classic musical about Maria, a young novice who doesn’t fit in well at an Austrian abbey, and is hired as governess to the seven Von Trapp children. Their father is the widowed Captain Von Trapp, whose stern military demeanor and quiet pain of losing his wife has led him to become detached from his children and ban all singing, playing, and other activities of normal healthy children. In time Maria develops feelings for Captain Von Trapp, which is problematic because of his growing relationship with another woman. The events that served as a prelude to World War II, including the anschluss, serve as a backdrop to this romantic and family story, adding to the dramatic tension.
Anna Daines brought a great deal of sparkle and magic to the role of Maria. From her earliest moments in the title song until the end of the play, she had me captivated with her performance. Daines created a version of Maria that was obviously in love with life and everything beautiful around her. Her gregariousness was endearing, and I found it easy to see why Maria would befriend the Von Trapp children when previous governesses had failed. Daines had the ability to command the large stage by herself, which was most apparent during “I Have Confidence.” At the beginning of the song Daines showed how her character was heartbroken to be asked to leave the abbey, but also was resolved to fulfill the task asked of her by the mother abbess. I had never seen the song as a terribly emotional piece before, and Daines shed new light on the classic through her subtle performance.
Opposite Daines was Jarin Stevens as Captain Von Trapp. The two have a genuine chemistry with one another, and I thought that Daines’s character choices complemented well Stevens’ rigid, formal characterization. Stevens also clearly let his character grow in the course of the play, demonstrating a softened heart, a stronger relationship with his children, and hardened desire to stand up for his beliefs at the end of the play.
Other actors in the play were also noteworthy. Emily Marble brought a loving, but firm, characterization to her role of the Mother Abbess. Moreover, Marble had a gorgeous voice that was elegantly showcased in “Climb Every Mountain,” which was an excellent finale to the first act. Heather Butler played the Baroness Schraeder with an elegance that was appropriate to a rich member of the European elite. Butler exuded a sophisticated detachment that was most noticeable in the party scene and her song “No Way to Stop It.” David Christensen played Max Detweiler, who tries to put the Von Trapp children on stage for his own personal enrichment. Christensen’s interactions with the children were charmingly different from their interactions with other major adult characters, which I appreciated. However, I sometimes felt like Christensen was just saying his lines and didn’t make the strong character choices that would provide the needed contrast to be a moral opposite of the Captain.
I can’t write a review of The Sound of Music without mentioning the children in the cast. All seven were excellent actors and never seemed distracted or bored while on stage. Plus, they seemed to truly interact with one another as siblings as they comforted each other (such as during “Edelweiss,”) or played with each other. I was surprised to find that Jessie June Castleton (playing Brigitta) and Naomi Rose Castleton (playing Marta) were they only siblings among the seven. Both Castleton girls were adorable, and I often heard whispers around me from audience members about how cute the two were. I also thought that Casey Josephson was excellent as Friedrich; he clearly understood what it was like to be the oldest son in a traditional family and took care of his younger siblings in mundane moments (like leaving the party) and in more tense moments (like the concert). All the other child actors, including Savanna Sanborn (Liesl), Dana Kuntz (Louisa), Kyle Hodder (Kurt) and Suzannah Sundstrom (Gretl), were superb singers and their harmonies in “The Sound of Music” reprise were heavenly.
The director of this production was Kris Jennings, who started the production with a gorgeous stage picture and kept the production visually interesting until the very end, such as in the concert scene. Jennings clearly is a director who understands children, and she gave her young actors interesting stage business that felt authentic. She also helped her child actors understand the gravity and danger that their characters were in at the end of the play. I enjoyed how Jennings staged many of the songs in the play, such as “Do-Re-Mi,” which had simple but interesting blocking that embraced the simplicity of the melody and showed the budding friendship between Maria and the children. Finally, Jennings was careful in how she developed the relationship between Maria and Captain Von Trapp; in their first scene together there was just one slight meaningful glance between the two. As Daines and Stevens had more scenes together, they physically drew closer together and each seemed more relaxed with the other. The only thing I didn’t like about Jennings’ direction, though, was the tendency in the first act to occasionally mimic scenes from the iconic movie version of The Sound of Music, such as in “So Long, Farewell,” and the Laendler dance. The rest of the production demonstrates that Jennings has more than enough creativity to direct an engaging show without falling back on the film.
Jennings also designed the lighting for the play, which was probably the best I’ve seen in an arts council production in the past year. Her choice of lighting the cyc with bold colors for many scenes was excellent, and her design for the concert scene was appropriately eerie and discomforting. The costumes (designed by Meg Butler and Kimberly Holley) were all superb. I loved how Maria was dressed in plain, traditional clothes, which highlighted the differences between her and the Baroness, who was dressed in high heels, a lot of jewelry, and very stylish dresses. I also thought that the costumes helped show the change that happened in Rolf (Michael McConkie). When he entered the stage in act two, dressed in a pressed Nazi uniform and knee high boots, it was clear that Rolf had moved from flirtatious boy to a deluded man who had been swept away by Berlin’s rhetoric and propaganda. Finally, the set (designed by Joel Farnsworth), though minimal, was gorgeously painted. Little of it needed to be moved because the “stone” steps and platform were so versatile in serving as the abbey, the villa, and the other locations called for in the script.
The only major problem I had with this production is also the most common complaint that reviewers have with amateur productions: sound and microphone problems. Some of the microphones were too quiet (like “I Have Confidence” and “How Can Love Survive?”) and some actors (such as Sanborn and Sundstrom) seemed to rarely have their microphones on at all. I’m sure the technical crew is aware of these issues, and I hope they can resolve them so that remaining performances can be improved. From my seat, though, on the third row, I could still hear most of the actors and I appreciated their willingness to project their voices.
At UTBA, we’re asked when judging and critiquing shows to keep in mind the level of professionalism of a production. That way we’re not unfairly judging a low budget all-volunteer production by the same standards as a professional play. Saratoga Springs Arts Council’s production of The Sound of Music isn’t just a good arts council production, though. Rather, it’s an excellent production by any reasonable standard, and many more established theatre companies would be proud to create a show like this.