BWW Reviews: Studio Tenn Delivers a Refreshing SOUND OF MUSIC to the Stage of The Franklin Theatre
It seems to me that Rodgers and Hammerstein's The Sound of Music is enjoying something of a renaissance of late-based upon the six productions of the classic musical that I've seen in less than a year. Others assure me, however, that it's not necessarily a renaissance, considering that the show has never really gone away and has remained a favorite of theater audiences since its Broadway premiere in 1959.
The latest production of The Sound of Music (that will likely play to capacity audiences at the historic Franklin Theatre through June 17), however, comes from the fertile imagination of Studio Tenn artistic director Matt Logan and just may signal a creative renaissance for the show that most of us know best from the 1965 Academy Award-winning film that pops up regularly on our television sets. Logan's unique take on the time-honored musical renders it, somehow, completely fresh, giving the tale of Maria Rainer and the seven children of the imperious Captain Georg von Trapp some contemporary twists that work marvelously, intriguing audiences with creativity and theatricality.
With a cast led by Broadway veterans Jessica Grové (who ideally captures the spirit and charm of Maria in her thoroughly captivating performance) and Ben Davis (tall and commanding as the naval captain torn by conflicting loyalties and social upheaval of historic proportions), Logan presents The Sound of Music you would expect from him, although in no way can you call it predictable or expected. To the contrary, Logan excels at delivering the unexpected and while The Sound of Music is probably the one show you would expect to be played out in the traditional, often-seen manner you've encountered in numerous other productions, he manages to surprise and delight you with his vision, his concept and his daring.
Truth be told, the tale remains the same, of course, and it is that familiarity that makes the musical so accessible and so beloved by audiences the world over. Young Maria Rainer, on the path to becoming a nun, is sent by the Mother Abbess at the Nonnberg Abbey to serve as interim governess at the palatial von Trapp estate. The widowed Captain von Trapp is a stern disciplinarian, who rules his household with the resolute authority of the naval veteran he most certainly is, maintaining a cold, distant relationship with his brood of seven children. When Maria arrives, the atmosphere at the von Trapp home is markedly changed, with her effervescent spirit filling the spacious hallways and rooms.
Logan's concept for the musical somehow opens up for the audience the pastoral vistas that exist in the Austrian mountains, capturing the sense of majesty of those centuries-old mountains amid the timely and very appropriate European fascination and respect for nature in all its glories. Certainly, the play may be set in the 1930s, but in focusing on that love of nature Logan also moves the musical into the 21st century, delivering a very "green" production if you will. Maria's obvious love for those mountains is palpable, underscored by von Trapp's same feelings of the importance of home and belonging , which makes the oncoming Nazi Anschluss all the more menacing in its approach during Act One, and devastatingly impactful in the play's second act.
Logan walks a fine line-if he strayed too far in One Direction, The Sound of Music could be so much pastel-colored pablum; had he gone the other way, it could be too plodding and didactic. He is able, aided and abetted by his superb cast and the fine orchestra under the direction of Chris Rayis, to present an entertaining take on the work, while giving it a foundation of realism and some historical perspective (the chilling tableau that opens Act Two is particularly noteworthy).
Another unique attribute of this production is Logan's choice of songs for the work-with the riches afforded by both the Broadway score and its film counterpart, which included many of the same titles yet featured some others written expressly for the Robert Wise film version-the director is able to fashion a revival of the show that, quite frankly, surprises you on more than one occasion during the show's almost three hours of running time.
As one would expect, Studio Tenn's The Sound of Music is beautifully designed: Logan is able to conceive his productions with an all-encompassing confidence borne out by his exquisite taste. He makes the most of the restrictions of the intimate venue, with a set design that works for all of the musical's myriad scenes (artfully and atmospherically lighted by designer Stephen Moss) and his gorgeous costumes clothe his actors with appropriate period style that exemplifies each character's status in life (Baroness Schraeder has never been so sumptuously dressed) and with nary a character shoe to be seen onstage. As beautifully sung and as impressively acted you might find this Sound of Music, what you're likely to remember afterward are the stunning visuals created by Logan and his team of designers.
Chief among the cast, of course, is Grové as the winsome and winning Maria. Grové plays her with an abundance of charm, imbuing each of her scenes with high-spirited goodness and a personal sense of self that makes her character all the more accessible. With a voice that is clear and lovely, she sings each of Maria's song with a passionate self-assurance that makes each of them somehow seem new and unique. Her fresh-faced approach to the role is both comforting and refreshing while Grové takes on the challenge with aplomb and infinite confidence (in fact, her terrific performance of "I Have Confidence" works both for Maria and for the actress playing her).
Davis, tall and handsome, has the regal bearing of someone with extensive military training, and he brings a palpable sense of honor and commitment to his role. His early scenes fairly bristle with his officiousness and detachment, while his later ones-particularly his romantic scenes with Grové-are more tender and affecting. Davis manages to retain his character's rigid sensibilities, even as he shows warmth toward his children and his evident love of the land. His strong baritone is heard most effectively in his lovely duet with Grové on "Something Good," while his performance of "Edelweiss" is moving and heartfelt.
And I cannot help but feel sorry for Elsa, the Baroness Schraeder, who despite her beauty and tremendous style, is thrown over by the good Captain for the younger, less conniving Maria. Marguerite Lowell, looking for all the world like she just stepped off the cover of a Vogue number from the late 1930s, plays the Baroness to perfection, capturing her character's obvious charms while doing so and giving her audience glimpses into the machinations that make the character so compelling-and possibly the most interesting in the bunch. (And, let's face it: How caddish is it that Georg breaks off his engagement to Elsa only moments before he asks Maria for her hand in marriage?)
Matt Carlton, another of Nashville theater's most beloved character actors, plays Max Dettwiler with the requisite sense of humor and the hard-to-define qualities that make his mid-level government official both attractive and rather repulsive in his way. Carlton's performance is pitch-perfect.
Nashville stage favorite Nan Gurley (who previously sung the role for Tennessee Repertory Theatre) plays the Mother Abbess of Nonnberg Abbey with a beatific sense of position, lending her enormously engaging stage presence and glorious voice to one of the most beautiful versions of "Climb Every Mountain" that you will ever hear. It will send chills up and down your spine, as her voice fills the theater with a rapturous sound.
She is given able and essential support by the Abbey's nuns-including Linda Sue Simmons as Sister Berthe, Melodie Madden Adams as Sister Margaretta and Emily Webb as Sister Sophia-who despite their habits and their wimples shine in the spotlight of Moss' evocative design. Their all-enveloping black wool costumes do little to disguise each woman's strong personality or to cover up her beauty.
Shelean Newman (who was Maria in that same Tennessee Rep Sound of Music in which Gurley was the Mother Abbess) gives a strong, surefooted and appropriately accented performance as Frau Schmidt, the von Trapp family housekeeper, while Christopher Bosen is wonderfully off-putting as the Nazi-sympathizing butler Franz.
Douglas Waterbury-Tieman is well-cast as Rolf, the young telegram deliveryman whose head is easily turned by a pretty girl or the promises of the invading Nazis, playing his role with a youthful zest underscored by a boyish sense of loyalty and devotion to party ideals.
Kelsey Self, playing the eldest von Trapp child Liesl, is quite lovely, capturing a sense of girlish glee artfully blended with the naivete of a young woman growing up in a sheltered household. Self is nicely paired with Waterbury-Tieman, particularly so in "16, Going on 17," which perfectly shows off Emily Tello's fine choreography.
Tello's choreography-which is ideally suited to the music and the overall impact of the production-is coupled with Logan's direction to ensure that the youthful members of the cast are given ample time in the spotlight. Led by Self as Liesl, the other von Trapp children show off their budding talents, while taking on their roles with a total commitment. Jack Alcott is Friedrich; Annabelle Fox is Louisa; stage veteran Matthew Dyra is Kurt; Mary Marguerite Hall (the lovely daughter of Marguerite Lowell aka the Baroness) is Brigitta; delightful Virginia Richardson is Marta; and the scene-stealing Bella Higginbotham as Gretl. The seven work well together, delivering performances that are as beguiling and charming as you could hope to see and their work with Grové is positively stellar.
Among the supporting cast, David Compton (who seems to be cornering the Nashville market on such roles) is menacing as Herr Zeller, while Fred Mullen plays the elderly Admiral von Schreiber with authority. Laura Matula (who, as vocal director for the production, should be credited for her cast's success), Lindsay Terrizzi Hess and Ruth Berends complete the cast as various nuns, singers and townswomen.
- The Sound of Music. Music by Richard Rodgers. Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II. Book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse. Directed and designed by Matt Logan. Music direction by Chris Rayis. Choreography by Emily Tello. Vocal direction by Laura Matula. Presented by Studio Tenn at the Franklin Theatre. Though June 17. For details, got to www.studiotenn.com.