MAGNA — Putting on an acceptable stage production of what is arguably the best-known musical of all time is a tall order, but The Empress Theatre’s production of The Sound of Music, directed by Susan Whitenight, pulled it off beautifully.
Loosely based on the real-life von Trapp family, this extraordinary story has as its backdrop a dark time in Austrian history. Maria, a problematic nun who loves to sing, is sent to be the governess of the widowed Captain von Trapp’s seven children shortly before the anschluss (German occupation and annexation of Austria just prior to WW II). Though there are definitely some sobering undertones, there is a harmonious blend of seriousness, warmth, romance, humor, and sentimentality. In addition to “raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens,” these were a few of my favorite things:
- The exceptional cast, the majority of whom were young performers ranging from elementary school to high school students. The cast was fairly large for the size of the theater, even with many of the actors playing two parts. I’m sure there had to be a lot of scrambling going on backstage as cast members switched costumes and characters from one scene to the next, but everyone seemed well-rehearsed as there were no obvious mistakes in placement or choreography. Most outstanding were the von Trapp children (Amanda Whitaker, Hayden Hill, Reeve Sikalis, Tyler Rowe, Melina Wrathall, Emma Beaird, and Kaila Reynolds). The children remembered every line and acted their parts without a hint of nervousness. During the “So Long, Farewell” scene they departed the stage one at a time and lined up along the stairway to sing their final “goodbye,” however the first little girl lost a shoe at the base of the stairs and was clearly worried about it being left there. It was humorous to watch her try to get the attention of her siblings as they joined her in succession on the staircase before they realized the misfortune. Then as children do, they “inconspicuously” began to whisper, elbow and motion to one another trying to figure out what to do. One of the older siblings finally came to the rescue and the Sound of Music was spared the Cinderella plot twist. I’m sure this was unrehearsed, but it seemed very natural behavior for a group of young siblings and it made the relationship among the characters seem real.
- The singing nuns—they were SO angelic! With tones so clear and well-blended, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if these ladies come out with a CD soon. They would certainly give Whoopi Goldberg (think Sister Act) a run for her money. Though the nuns looked much younger than you would expect, the singing was sublime and there was a good variety of solos, ensemble numbers, and pieces for the entire nun choir. The Mother Abbess (Chelsea Baldwin) has several solos, including the landmark “Climb Every Mountain,” and did an outstanding job, nailing every high note. The opening nun scene with “Dixit Dominus” and “Sound of Music,” was especially memorable. It began with just a few voices center stage and then the nuns came in from every corner of the room and encircled the audience with song. It’s one thing to hear beautiful music, but to be right in the center, surrounded by the sound is in my opinion much more enjoyable. (It’s why I’d rather play in an orchestra than listen to one.)
- The “Lonely Goatherd” Puppet Show (with human puppets). What a nice touch!
- The Concert. For the most part Captain Von Trapp (Tyler Kofoed) is noble and stoic, even stern, but when he sang “Edelweiss,” his voice was like a lullaby and we truly saw a tender father, husband, and patriot. The Empress seemed transformed into a great concert hall filled with Austrian patriotism as the audience willingly followed his cue to join in the singing. I would sit through all 3 hours of this performance a second time just to experience that moment again.
The casting was perfect, especially with the delightful von Trapp children. While Maria (Faith Clark) may not have the voice of screen sensation Julie Andrews, I found her portrayal of the girlish nun much more endearing. You’ll hear “Climb Ev’ry Mountain,” “Do-Re-Me,” “Something Good,” and every other well-loved song, but real-life husband and wife duo Max Detweiler (Richard Johnson) and Elsa Schraeder (Shawnee Johnson) will entertain you with several songs not included in the film version.
Some of the scene changes were a bit lengthy (and noisy!) and the “Sixteen going on Seventeen” dance scene between Franz and Liesl is a bit disappointing. Overall, though, The Sound of Music provided every bit of the delightful, toe-tapping, heart-warming nostalgia I was hoping for as one who was raised on the Rogers and Hammerstein. This was a touching and fun performance the whole family is sure to fall in love with!
P.S. If you see the show on Friday or Saturday night, you receive FREE admission to the Jesters Royale comedy troupe show directly after the play.