ST. GEORGE — The hills of southern Utah are once again alive with The Sound of Music; and while the views outside the St. George Opera House are of the area’s signature red rocks, inside the audience is skillfully transported to the majestic mountains of Austria for an evening of love and nostalgia, courtesy of the talented cast and crew at St. George Musical Theater.
Directed by Brooke Bang, with choreography by Shellie Thomas and musical direction by Melodie Kimzey, the beloved story of the von Trapp family comes to life with all the Rodgers and Hammerstein songs audiences know and love, but with an intimacy that can only be achieved in this theater’s signature in-the-round style.
From the musical’s opening notes — beautifully provided by the ensemble cast of nuns — there was no doubt the talent pool from which this production had to draw ran deep. If these stunning voices were selected as the ensemble, the bar was set for the lead actors to soar even higher. And they did not disappoint.
Taking the stage as the central character in the story, Haley-Shea Benoit embodied every aspect of the role of Maria Rainer, the would-be nun who is sent to serve as a governess to Captain von Trapp’s seven children. With a musical lilt that seemed to come as naturally as drawing breath, Benoit’s youthful exuberance as Maria was utterly enchanting. Whether striving for penitence in her early conversations with Mother Abbess (played by Corinne Clayton) or winning over the children — and later the Captain (played by Andy Young) — with her charm, Benoit’s wide smile and confidence on stage made it easy to be swept up in the story from beginning to end.
Working with a cast of seven children each night (actually, 14, because each of the children’s roles are double cast) undoubtedly presents some unique challenges and opportunities. But on stage these actors managed to strike a perfect balance of stealing the audience’s hearts, without overshadowing the story. Among the seven siblings, notable standouts included the over-the-top adorable Gretl (played by Piper Schoney) and the spunky, well-spoken Brigitta (played by Inga Belle Robertson). Additionally, Liesl (played by Alicia Isaacson) turned in a strong performance as the giddy, sweet, naïve 16-year-old going on 17. Her chemistry with Rolf Gruber (played by Pierce Robison) did not feel fully developed, but his dancing with Liesel and singing during “Sixteen Going On Seventeen” was certainly heartfelt. Indeed, Isaacson, along with Kalister Hutchings in the role of Louisa, shined vocally on all of the sibling songs.
Filling in as the understudy for the Max Detweiler role, Jason Buck was excellent in offering a comedic interlude, even in some of the story’s more serious moments. His droll remarks, delivered with a delightful accent and just the right amount of whimsy, made him the lovable “Uncle Max,” even as he edges a bit too close to the wrong side of political history. One of the high points (no pun intended) of the evening was Clayton’s rendition of “Climb Every Mountain.” Clayton stirred the soul with her vocal strength, but also in her powerful, yet humble delivery. Her love for Maria was evident, making their eventual parting even more moving.
One of the more complicated roles in the story is that of Captain von Trapp, who undergoes a transformation throughout the story, moving from a regimented, strict, and serious man whose wife’s death has left him unable to express love to his children or to fully enjoy life. Eventually he becomes a gentler, kinder father whose love, courage and patriotism drives him to stand against the invading German army at any cost. Although Young did a delightful job as the softer version of his character, the change in him was not necessarily clear, as he never fully embraced the distant, cold side of the captain. Even during his most fiery exchanges and the most somber scenes there was always a hint of amusement; a tiny smile playing at the corners of his lips. Still, when Young moved to the spotlight to sing “Edelweiss” as a man overwhelmed by patriotism and sorrow while the forces of evil are shifting the ground beneath him, the message came through loud and clear via Young’s beautiful voice.
Despite the rousing praise this production deserves, there is one directorial choice that did not sit well. In the closing scene as the Nazi soldiers are searching the abbey for the von Trapp family, Rolf discovers them in the garden and draws his gun. The blocking of the scene has Liesl set in between the gun-wielding Rolf and the rest of the group — with Captain von Trapp making no attempt to move from his position at the back of the group to protect his family. Such a lack of movement seems wildly out of character for a man, especially a father, and certainly one with military training. While the scene is likely attempting to show Liesl’s silent plea as the one thing strong enough to persuade Rolf to lower his gun, the exchange feels implausible at best, unsettling at worst.
Speaking of unsettling — only this is the good kind — the production’s use of the large Third Reich banners sent a chill down the spine as they were unfurled. The only thing that might have improved the anxious feeling as the story barreled toward its climax would have been to station more guards in Nazi uniforms throughout the theater.
Concluding the production as it began — with the stunning vocals of the ensemble nun choir — was the perfect bookend to a story that sweeps through the very soul with its music and its message. The St. George Musical Theater production of The Sound of Music is definitely a version that deserves to be seen “once more.”