'Sound of Music' proves its timeliness more than 55 years after Broadway opening

MIAMI -- There's a touching moment in the beloved musical classic "The Sound of Music," during which Naval Captain Georg von Trapp, still hurting emotionally inside from the death of his wife, remarks that he hears his children singing.

Up to this point, music reminded him too much of their mother. As a coping tool, he treated them as though he were their drill sergeant, requiring them to march at the sounds of his whistle.

But those distant, youthful voices unearthed feelings he'd buried deep insde.

And in a mostly commendable new touring production of "The Sound of Music," which recently completed a South Florida engagement and will play Columbus' Ohio Theatre Jan. 26-31, Ben Davis makes the remark sound genuine and heartfelt. His cracking voice evokes the sense that he's surprised, in a pleasant, emotionally happy way.

He takes a moment to compose himself and closes his eyes while those repressed feelings of love for his children and music come gushing out. Then he happily joins them in song.

The scene is one of the strongest moments in the production, directed with sensitivity and attention to detail by Jack O'Brien.

O'Brien has told Playbill magazine, "We are tearing off the varnish of the past from one of the greatest glories of our theatergoing experience and making it fresh."

The production feels anything but tired or dated with its vibrancy, but if you tinker too much with a masterpiece such as "The Sound of Music," set in late 1930s Austria, you could ruin the show.

Thankfully, O'Brien leaves the musical mostly intact.

Casting is a critical part of the production process. In this "Sound of Music," Ashley Brown, who was nominated for multiple awards for her work as the title character in "Mary Poppins" on Broadway," is a less "old world" Mother Abbess than one might expect.

Brown imbues the character with sympathy and positivity (especially in her sincere, sympathetic and expressful rendition of "Climb Ev'ry Mountain"); but somehow you get the sense this Mother Abbess isn't as mature, commanding or capable of using a ruler as you'd expect. Brown seems as young as the other sisters. Perhaps that's a deliberate choice by O'Brien to modernize the production and not make this "your mother's familiar 'Sound of Music,'" as he's told Playbill.

Still, one would think "Climb Ev'ry Mountain," a song about searching for your purpose in life, would be sung by someone appearing more mature. You'd also think the Mother Abbess is a position that you attain with experience.

Maria Rainer, the postulant who's sent to serve as governess to von Trapp's children, is experienced with music, having loved it since her childhood. But when Maria (Kerstin Anderson) first arrives at the von Trapp home (rendered elegantly and spaciously by scenic designer Douglas W. Schmidt, a contrast from the dark, cloistered confines of the Nonnberg Abbey), Anderson's Maria seems strangely unsure of herself at the beginning of "Do-Re-Mi." That's the upbeat, playful song in which Maria introduces the captain's seven children (each of whom possesses a distinct personality, thanks to the attentive, energetic youngsters who play them) to the joy of music.

Fortunately, Anderson gains confidence as the song progresses, and she and the youngsters treat it as the showstopper that it is.

I pictured a young Reese Witherspoon while watching Anderson, who, like the other performers, has a clear, expressive singing voice, play Maria. She's at turns convincinvly bubbly, torn between her love of the captain and her desire to become a nun.

Comfort is something all of us need in today's turbulent and uncertain world. That's one reason why "The Sound of Music" is not only timeless but particulary timely. Like another of Rodgers and Hammerstein's songs, "I Whistle a Happy Tune" from "The King and I," "My Favorite Things" encourages someone who's fearful or feeling bad to concentrate on pleasant things.

There's quite a contrast when the children listlessly sing the song alone, after Maria leaves them and when she unexpectedly returns and chimes in, bringing palpable joy to the youngsters.

Such a song can serve as distraction, but it can't blot out reality. In "The Sound of Music," it's only a matter of time before the Nazis take over Austria and Captain von Trapp is summoned to serve in the Third Reich's Navy. A thunderstorm, complete with a loud clap of thunder, foreshadows this development and sound designer Ken Travis makes it sound real. One sound that could use some work is the captain's whistle. Rather than producing a shrill, it makes a weak noise, hardly the kind that would strike fear into someone.

Although it's been decades since the Nazis rose to power, the emergence of terrorist groups such as Isis has shown groups such as the Nazis can easily influence the impressionable. In "The Sound of Music," one of those influenced is teenager Rolf Gruber (an arrogant, impulsive Dan Tracy). By the end, he's all but forgotten his love for Liesl, the eldest of the von Trapp children, played with an air of independence and dreamy romance by Paige Silvester. Rolf has come searching for the family after their disapperance from a country-wide talent show toward the end of the musical.

It's really the captain, played practically flawlessly by Davis, whom the Nazis seek. In the beginning, he brings to mind, without acting forceful, a gruff, dictatorial boss and an unfeeling, abrupt, unsmiling man with no feelings for his children, let alone Maria.

Davis' captain melts seamlessly into a tender-hearted, sensitive and proud man without seeming arrogant. Teri Hansen also steers clear of that quality while conveying glamour and elegance as the captain's love interest, Elsa Schraeder.

The production is set against a backdrop of a blue sky. The shade of blue, in most cases, mirrors the darkness or lightness of the mood of a scene. There's also a backdrop of the hills of the title, which take on an odd puprlish, cotton candy-like hue that doesn't seem to suggest they're alive with the sound of music.

One character full of life is Max Detweiler, a von Trapp family friend who strongly enoucrages their singing. He's played by Merwin Foard as a hearty, charming uncle. Foard has a deep, rich voice that reinforces these traits.

"The Sound of Music," is a layered story with likable characters, songs that deepen characterization and have stuck in our minds (I heard one patron humming one of the tunes at intermission).

Despite the creation of hip, new musicals experimenting with different styles, we, thankfully, haven't heard the end of such classics as "The Sound of Music."

 

IF YOU GO

WHAT: "The Sound of Music."

WHEN: Jan. 26-31

WHERE: 39 E. State St., Columbus.

For information on times and tickets, log onto www.thesoundofmusicontour.com.

The website also lists other cities in which the tour will stop