by Michael Dale
Yes, I’ll say it. The 1959 Broadway stage version of The Sound of Music is far superior to 1965 film adaptation. Yeah, yeah, I know… The Oscar-winning best picture has all that lovely Austrian and Bavarian scenery and those cute kids and, oh yeah, Julie Andrews as the young postulant, Maria, sent to serve as governess to the seven children of Naval Captain Georg Ludwig von Trapp. But it also has a watered-down screenplay by Ernest Lehman that cuts two of the best songs in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s score and eliminates one of the most interesting aspects of Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse’s original book; the depiction of nice, likeable Austrians who, unaware of the full extent of Hitler’s atrocities, argue against resistance of the German overthrow of their country. The stage musical even includes an important scene, altered in the film, where a Nazi in uniform commits a selfless act of compassion that helps rescue the von Trapps.
That’s not to say that the stage version of The Sound of Music, now receiving a spunky, well-acted and wonderfully sung production at the Paper Mill Playhouse, gets totally bogged down in politics. Those seeking some holiday family fun are sure to be delighted in director/choreographer James Brennan’s light and breezy production. And while some may fear the danger of high saccharine levels emerging from performances of classics like “Do-Re-Mi,” “My Favorite Things,” “So Long, Farewell” and “You Are Sixteen,” the cuteness level is kept at a minimum here; giving way to vibrant, character-driven staging.
Elena Shaddow, an actress who excels in showing the darker textures of ingénue roles, does excellent work in playing Maria as a scruffy kid, looking barely older than the children she is sent to care for, who, with her parents deceased, appears desperate to belong somewhere. Singing is her remedy for fear and loneliness and as the governess gradually grows more secure in her position and her love for the Captain, Shaddow’s soprano takes on warmer, more mature tones. Early on, her “I Have Confidence” (a song Rodgers wrote music and lyrics for after Hammerstein’s passing) is appropriately done with a forced gusto, as the frightened Maria tries to hide her timid nature. When she sings with the children, it’s playfully pleasant, but by the time she and Captain von Trapp are embracing, her “Something Good” displays smooth, romantic and mature vocals. (Another song written completely by Rodgers after Hammerstein’s death, “Something Good” oddly begins with references to Maria’s “wicked childhood” and “miserable youth,” despite an earlier scene where she talks about growing up quite happy.)
As the Captain, Ben Davis makes a touching transition from the stern disciplinarian who has yet to get over the passing of his wife to a more gracious man who can open his heart again. His singing voice is a gorgeous, masculine baritone.
In the film, the Captain, wanting a mother for his children, gets engaged to a rather mean and nasty baroness, but in the stage musical his intended is businesswoman Elsa Schrader (charming Donna English), who is kind to Maria and encourages the children to sing. It’s her willingness to compromise with the Nazis in order to protect her corporation that causes friction in her engagement to the Captain.
Also willing to make compromises is Max Detweiler (a droll and humorous Edward Hibbert), a cultural affairs official who recruits the von Trapps to sing in his music festival. Max and Elsa sing one of Hammerstein’s cleverest lyrics, “How Can Love Survive?,” about how poor people have an advantage over the rich when it comes to romance, and also pair up for “No Way To Stop It,” a deceptively merry duet about looking out for yourself when the future looks grim.
As the Mother Abbess, Suzanne Ishee sings “Climb Every Mountain” with a majestic contralto and, under music director Tom Helm, the choral singing of the nuns is quite thrilling. The singing of the seven von Trapp children is also very enjoyable and I must make special mention of tiny Greta Clark, who displays excellent diction as young Gretl.
Photos by T. Charles Erickson: Top: Susanne Ishee and Elena Shaddow; Bottom: Ben Davis and Elena Shaddow.
After 20-odd years singing, dancing and acting in dinner theatres, summer stocks and the ever-popular audience participation murder mysteries (try improvising with audiences after they?ve had two hours of open bar), Michael Dale segued his theatrical ambitions into playwriting. The buildings which once housed the 5 Off-Off Broadway plays he penned have all been destroyed or turned into a Starbucks, but his name remains the answer to the trivia question, "Who wrote the official play of Babe Ruth's 100th Birthday?" He served as Artistic Director for The Play's The Thing Theatre Company, helping to bring free live theatre to underserved communities, and dabbled a bit in stage managing and in directing cabaret shows before answering the call (it was an email, actually) to become BroadwayWorld.com's first Chief Theatre Critic. While not attending shows Michael can be seen at Shea Stadium pleading for the Mets to stop imploding. Likes: Strong book musicals and ambitious new works. Dislikes: Unprepared celebrities making their stage acting debuts by starring on Broadway and weak bullpens.