BWW Reviews: Broadway Rose Theater's THE SOUND OF MUSIC a Visual Stunner with Powerhouse Talent
My mother was at a funeral the other week for an old family friend. Mom and I spoke about it yesterday. Throughout the ceremony there was music playing, the songs were some of this woman’s favorite, songs that she adored up until her death, and nearly all of them were from THE SOUND OF MUSIC. My mother recalled when she and this woman had gone to see THE SOUND OF MUSIC in the cinema when it had first come out as a film, it was surprising that so many years later, so many of the tunes still brought so much joy.
All right, now let’s everyone take a breath and go back to being lighthearted.
Broadway Rose Theater Company is one of Portland’s big guns in the scene, so expectations-wise we’ve set the bar pretty high to begin with. Then, Broadway Rose Theater Company is tackling what is arguably one of the most influential texts of the 20th century (remember the decades of film studios thinking they could throw any old rubbish together in the form of a musical and make loads of money, eventually helping to carve out ‘event cinema’ and accelerate the decline of narrative in favor of spectacle-dominated texts? Yeah, this play’s fault.), so we’ve set the bar doubly high for this performance!
Does it deliver? Yes, of course! Is it a great night out? Yes, of course! Obligatory and quotable one-sentence-snapshot for the website? THE SOUND OF MUSIC remains as true to form as ever, made even more impressive by its slick direction, larger-than-life production value, and extensive cast that has talent (so close to literally!) pouring out into the aisles.
At this point we’re all aware that the nitpicking and opinionated-writer portion of the review approacheth, but before we crack on I’d like to genuinely take some time to break down why the strengths of the play make it such a success.
First off, the direction in all aspects is incredibly on point. When a text is as entrenched into the cultural psyche as THE SOUND OF MUSIC, and written in such a straightforward manner, it’s hard to find places for creative liberties. I’m not going to try and pitch that this production has much avant-garde theatricality to it, but it’s still an incredible achievement when the decisions made for presentation are so perfectly placed that they verge on feeling axiomatic. I’m sure that sounds like hyperbole. Let me give you an example, a see-through curtain is used to begin several scenes, the kind that is often used to allow for silent pantomime and then as close to a ‘fade-in’ effect as theater can get. The use of this curtain is common, but the decision to begin a character’s lines until their dialogue reaches the first ‘beat’ before raising that curtain effectively creates an introduction to new voice, setting, scene, and discussion where there initially was none. It’s a small example (my readership can usually tolerate spoilers regarding curtain usage), but it shows how through a technical point, director Sharon Maroney creates what is essentially an abstract to lead us into our newest location. It’s choices like this that feel obvious, without also feeling dull, that suggest good direction.
Second, the larger-than-life production value. I’m not going to linger on this point, because it speaks for itself and can only be expressed through actually seeing the production. Everything, everything, is way more elaborate than you’d expect, to the point that I have to wonder if the designers thought THE SOUND OF MUSIC was an event at the X-Games. And I’m not the only one who found it note-worthy, considering how each new set seemed to draw an impressed murmur from the audience. And on top of all of that…the technical director’s name is Bearclaw. Bearclaw! Why are you not going to see this play right now?!
The last success story is the cast, and it seems like a fairly exhaustive list of singing talent in this production. With Leah Yorkston as Maria Rainer, Margie Boulé as the Mother Abbess, and what can only be described as an intimidating amount of nuns serving as the chorus…purity seems to be the defining feature of the vocal performers. Clear harmonies and tight, technical execution make for more than one rousing number. You’ll cheer after ‘Climb Ev’ry Mountain’, that’s for sure. If you don’t, see a doctor so that he can blindside you with a brick.
Oh, and a quick mention of Isaac Lamb, who plays an astoundingly wonderful Captain Georg von Trapp. I’ve been doing this drama critic thing for a while now and have not once seen a play in which at least one person’s speaking voice didn’t bother me for various reasons. This, however, is very much the first play where an actor’s speaking voice actually impressed me. Isaac really comes off brilliantly, singing well, of course, but more so as a presence on stage. His personality and voice are noteworthy, in a way that makes me glad he’s a Portlander (oddly). Plus I feel like I recognize him from somewhere…somewhere internity…
There are one or two things that don’t work for me, but I should point out that with the exception of some missed microphone cues, most of these issues come from the nature of putting on a play as huge as THE SOUND OF MUSIC, rather than this individual production of aforementioned musical.
The first issue is that by performing a text as iconic and well known as THE SOUND OF MUSIC, you invite comparison. Whether or not you succeed is not really the point here. The point is that in the back of the audience’s mind, whether they like it or not, is a running juxtaposition between this new production and whatever iconic production that they are familiar with, and therefore the audience is inevitably unable to be completely engrossed in the text. Part of everyone’s brain is thinking, instead of experiencing. Thinking is for afterwards or engineering majors. It is for this reason I will always prefer new endeavors to the rehashing of established theater. Obviously there’s value in keeping great art alive, but that’s how I feel about the matter.
The second issue ties into the first, in the sense that it becomes a problem when a musical is dated. Musically this play is a masterpiece, who could argue? It is brilliant in a thousand brilliant ways. That being said, a lot of these songs are playful and meant for children, both in the audience and in the narrative. So, the simplicity of these songs from their inception (in addition to how long these songs have been around) means that there are times when the musical portion of this play gets rather…boring. Not boring, but so close to being boring. It doesn’t matter how you feel about the music of today, I think we can all agree that there are some melodic phrasings that (culturally) we’ve just outgrown. Some ideas feel too heavy-handed, they’ve been around too long and we’ve come up with too many great new ways of phrasing that to a modern listener are much less obvious. I know it’s a stupid bone to pick with a play where one of the songs is literally teaching children what a scale is, but there you have it. I am at desperate risk of soon finding THE SOUND OF MUSIC boring.
My last issue ties back to the sets. Part of what made everything feel so elaborate and over-the-top was not just the size and intricacy of the designs, but how many of them there are! So many! It’s been a while since I’ve read the script for this play but I recall feeling a little more grounded in the original than I did in this production. In the first half of this Broadway Rose version there is a disconnect, purely due to the audience not being able to find their feet in a specific location and then branching out from there.
Here’s what it comes down to: you know this play, and you know this theater company. Both of them are amazing and are institutions for their own various reasons. So go, and be a part of something big and wonderful that will stay with you for the rest of your life and maybe even past then. Plus if you don’t go, the Nazis win.
THE SOUND OF MUSIC closes July 22nd
Tickets are available at 503-620-5262 or visit www.broadwayrose.org for details.