BWW REVIEWS: Sumptuous Sights and Sounds Make “The Sound of Music” Thrilling at Lyric Opera of Chicago

By: Apr. 28, 2014

I hardly know where to begin in describing the beautiful, world-class, but dramatically uneven production of the beloved and immortal "The Sound of Music" that opened at the Civic Opera House over the weekend. All the resources of Lyric Opera of Chicago have been brought to bear on a brand-new production of a title that is known throughout the world, and the result is occasionally thrilling--a feast for the eyes, and usually one for the ears as well. The adult mind, perhaps, and the attention span of the child, may at times be taxed by hurried or one-dimensional moments in the dramatic action. But those who love this show and know it well will find much to admire, and those new to it will, if prepared in advance, have a musical and play-going experience they will long remember.

Rodgers' and Hammerstein's "The Sound of Music," with a book by "Life with Father" playwrights Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, was one of the toasts of Broadway in the 1959-60 season, along with "Gypsy" and the slightly less-remembered "Fiorello!" Its legendary 1965 film version is arguably the most successful stage-to-screen adaptation ever made. The property as a whole means a great deal to folks of my generation (late baby boomer, let's say), and for the children and now grandchildren of those original fans, it's been a repertory staple. Some older folks even remember the real-life Trapp Family Singers, who popularized the renaissance-era musical instrument the recorder in the United States, touring and making records into the 1950s. The romanticized tale of their formation as performing musicians, the transformation of their teacher into their step-mother and their emigration from Nazi-held Austria to Stowe, Vermont during World War II has been loved, sliced and diced, re-told and re-staged for 55 years, and even longer in German-language films.

And so, as stage two of their five-year American Musical Theater Initiative, Lyric Opera has hired Broadway director Marc Bruni (he directed "Beautiful," one of the hits of the current Broadway season), Broadway conductor Rob Fisher (best-known for the "Encores!" series of musicals in concert), and opera and Broadway set designer Michael Yeargan (he earned Tony Awards for "A Light in the Piazza" and the recent Lincoln Center Theater revival of "South Pacific") to conceive the show for big-time Chicago audiences. Using what I believe is the 1998 Broadway revival as a basis (the "Rebecca Luker" version), Bruni, Fisher and Yeargan have executed an opera-house version of the show (with impeccable sound design by Mark Grey, by the way), honoring Mary Martin's Broadway original, nodding in many ways to Robert Wise's Hollywood incarnation with the unstoppable Julie Andrews, keeping Lyric's opera fan base happy with probably the best chorus of Nonnberg nuns the world has ever heard, and almost--almost--providing theater diehards and nervous parents with a failsafe evening of tuneful escape. It's a huge balancing act, and it's almost perfect.

I won't go into a plot synopsis here. There's too much else to talk about! So, what works? Well, Yeargan's set, for starters. It's extremely beautiful to look at, with a show curtain of pixilated mountains looking very much like a still from Wise's film. The house exteriors are based on the real-life, actual von Trapp family villa near Salzburg, and the Nonnberg Abbey sets are dark but full of life. Most scene changes occur during musical numbers, or swiftly thereafter, with the Georgian-classical house interior on a large wagon covering the width of the stage, numerous drops swooping in, other sets trucking in from the sides, and the Alps always hovering above and beside. That famous mountain-that-must-be-climbed is present at the beginning and the end, and, aside from the backyard terrace set needing some sort of masking or additional platforming stage left, it's a remarkably well-realized physical production. The costumes and lights, too (by Alejo Vietti and Duane Schuler) are warm, evocative and detailed. Nearly any theater in the world would drool at what you can see in this production.

The chorus of nuns, as I mentioned, are a highlight, as one hoped they would be. And yet, I don't know if it's possible to be entirely prepared for the coup de theatre that occurs at the beginning of the wedding sequence, when twenty classically trained singer-actresses (20!), backing the international opera star Christine Brewer as the Mother Abbess, stride out and form one line across the entire proscenium arch, and launch into the "Gaudeamus" introduction to the "Wedding March" (also known as the reprise of "How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria"). It's a truly thrilling moment. THRILLING. (I counted them, by the way. Brewer's in the middle, with ten on each side.) The show's climax, with those same nuns reprising "Climb Every Mountain" (the most beloved piece of Broadway mid-century faux-religion ever devised) is similarly jaw-dropping. It should be, of course. And it is. (Lyric's chorus master is Michael Black.) If the show's quiet beginning ("Dixit Dominus") is slightly less perfect, that's because it's hard to chant while walking with a candle in the dark. Trust me on this one.

Broadway veteran and TV journeyman Edward Hibbert (11 seasons as Gil Chesterton on "Frasier") is superb as character man/comic relief/realist/impresario Max Detweiler, showing he is a true pro in every sense of the word. Brewer sings beautifully, both high and low, though on Sunday afternoon her high A-flat was a little truncated. Her acting, while not overly nuanced, got the job done, with a warm presence and a believable humor. And her three nun sidekicks, Cory Goodrich (Margaretta), Susan Moniz (Sophia) and Erin ElizaBeth Smith (Berthe) are quite good. Two are musical theater stalwarts and a third is from the opera world. Who can tell the difference? Not I. Their scenes worked very well.

The six younger children, led by Brady Tutton as Friedrich (some sort of star in the making, I assure you, with a stunning high G) are delightful, and sing those harmony parts on the reprise of the title tune more beautifully than I have ever heard them. And their timing and personalities and dancing abilities are quite good, and will probably improve once the shock of performing in such a large room wears off. They are Julia Schweitzer (a sly Louisa), Michael Harp (an adorable Kurt), Isabelle Roberts (her Brigitta has no filter, apparently), KyLee Hennes (a lovely Marta, always desirous of that pink parasol), and tiny Nicole Scimeca (her Gretl rides a bicycle like a pro, and her high note is flawlessly in tune). Bravo to each of them.

Oldest daughter Liesl and suitor Rolf are portayed here by Betsy Farrar and Zach Sorrow, she a 2012 graduate of Ball State University and he a 2013 graduate of Northwestern University. Their careers are off and running. Farrar is lovely and impetuous, and Sorrow cocksure and naïve. If neither seems like a real teenager, their voices are fine for the roles. And they did manage to pull off the fun trick of toeing the line between playing and dancing during "Sixteen Going on Seventeen." I didn't know if the characters knew they were dancing or not! It worked for me (bravo to choreographer Denis Jones, sporting a long list of nationwide credits). Oh, and local character actors Mary Ernster, Dev Kennedy, Rob Hunt and Michael Weber do fine work as Frau Schmidt, Franz, Herr Zeller and Admiral von Schrieber. Yes.

Top-billed Billy Zane, a Chicago native and film star (most notably "Titanic") and Broadway actor (most notably "Chicago") portrays the Baron-Captain Georg von Trapp as a handsome, distracted man caught between old money and new political and economic realities. If Zane's singing voice is nothing much for an opera house setting, his acting is certainly large enough to fill it, a challenge for those with significant on-camera experience. If his character didn't seem fully warmed up to his delightful offspring by the end of Sunday afternoon, at least he had been believable throughout, not a silly caricature when wielding his bosun's whistle, nor overly awkward with a guitar in his hands. I liked him, though I see that there is more depth to the character than he has yet revealed.

Jenn Gambatese, recent star of the "Wicked" national tour (as Glinda, as she was here last fall), is a fine Maria. She's like a cross between Martin, Andrews and Luker, starting off as flibbertigibbet/will-o'-the-wisp/clown and maturing through devout country girl and strong-willed governess into mature wife and mother. Her soprano and her mixed voice suit these arrangements (uncredited) of the music well, with "The Lonely Goatherd" particularly well-sung, if a tad slow. (It was staged well, too, combining the original setting in the bedroom with the movie's puppet show through effective deployment of a bedspread.) Gambatese's humor was different than I had seen before, which worked, and she was truly horrified at the prospect that physical attraction could be getting in the way of her (and God's) plan for her to remain celibate. She's a natural with the children, almost sisterly with Liesl and very matter-of-fact with the Elsa Schrader of Lyric Opera perennial star Elizabeth Futral. It's a lovely performance and should catapult her career admirably.

Which brings me to what doesn't work, at least not yet. Elizabeth Futral sings Elsa well enough, but her acting and characterization come off as one-dimensional, barely scratching the surface of a complicated woman who, in this text, gives up on a perfect match due to political pressures from without, not specifically due to the threat of a younger woman (as the film would have it). Futral works her gowns and bRandy Glasses well enough, too, but doesn't seem substantial enough to be a real possibility for life with Georg. Why would he be with a woman who seems so superficial? I think Futral is playing the end from the beginning. Maybe running the show will deepen her performance. On paper, though, and perhaps at the box office, she is a natural for this role.

My other chief complaint is a related one, but I lay it at the feet of director Bruni. The show seems rushed at its points of dramatic storytelling. The times when characters realize things, and grow and change, just whiz on by, with audiences either not noticing or wanting a do-over. Did she just mean she's leaving? Did he just mean that he's willing to show his love? Did he just imply he's a Nazi sympathizer? Adults shouldn't have to guess what's going on, or remember other versions of the material to help them connect the dots. And children shouldn't have to sit through the longeurs of R&H's second-rate comedy songs ("How Can Love Survive" is very nearly in the same low class as "It's a Scandal, It's an Outrage" from "Oklahoma!") while their parents scratch their heads, either. Elsa's two songs (the other is "No Way to Stop It") are just not worth doing unless we're following their dramatic meaning. Even Gambatese's Maria goes from unsure nun to strong-willed teacher a little bit too quickly. There are transitions that need a little more care, that's all. With so much going for it, this production suffers where it doesn't need to--the plot. Just tell me the story, and give me time enough to follow it.

The Lyric Opera Orchestra, with 37 members for this outing, sounds fine, except in some stage-to-pit coordination issues that will surely work themselves out, and in some stylistic considerations that Fisher will no doubt endeavor to correct (Rodgers isn't Verdi or Wagner, and shouldn't be played that way). But in the well-known songs, and especially in the choral and children's sections, this production shines, music-wise. "Do Re Mi" is a joy, "My Favorite Things" is charming, and "So Long, Farewell" is spritely. Most of the entr'acte is played, too, which is nice. And at a running time of roughly two hours and forty-five minutes, with no real cuts to the score, there is time to let everything breathe--the ballads, the chants, the book scenes, the growing Nazi threat, the escape planning. There should be no rush. To quote from "Carousel," "Where's the fire?"

I'd like to talk briefly about some of the differences I noted between the original Broadway script/score/staging with Mary Martin, and this one, particularly as influenced by the Julie Andrews-Christopher Plummer film. This production opens with the nuns at prayer, and segues to Maria on the mountain, as Martin's version did. But Gambatese isn't in a tree, as Martin was. She enters from down the mountain, and at the title phrase of the title song she surges toward the audience, as Andrews did. (The famous twirl, however, happens later in the song, to my relief.) This production substitutes the song "I Have Confidence" (instead of a reprise of "My Favorite Things") for Maria's trip to the villa, and even includes an onstage costume change for Gambatese, so she can don an ugly dress and hat, and travel via scene change to the front gates of the house for the number's conclusion (with Andrews' memorable, "Oh, help!"). In a remarkable and organic change, the second half of "Do Re Mi" occurs not in the house, but on bicycles, leading to the suggestion of a picnic on the mountain, as in the film. This works extremely well. (This change makes the transition to the "Sixteen/Seventeen" scene remarkable as well, as Liesl stays on her bike and is joined by Rolf on his.)

In Act II, we get "Something Good" instead of "An Ordinary Couple," which is ok by me if not for the fact that the dialogue before it leads to a song about "us," not about "me." Ah, well. For the stunning wedding sequence, we get the nuns behind their gates and the wedding party in front of a beautiful reredos, a juxtaposition that theater can do even better than film. Quite moving. And at the end, the Captain put Gretl on this back before that famous mountain climb, and all became right with the world. I literally choked back a tear, and I had already seen a production photo of the final tableau. I wasn't caught off guard, you know, but I hadn't lived through it just yet. Knowing what will happen and seeing (and hearing it) gloriously unfold are two very different things.

And so, in an imperfect attempt to please who knows how many stakeholders in a production both highly visible and fraught with problems to be solved, Lyric Opera's "The Sound of Music" is indeed a triumph for the opera house, for the writers, for the designers and for Chicago audiences. It looks amazing. It sounds great. It works, though it could work even better. It is neither stodgy nor boring nor pedestrian nor flashy (fears I've heard expressed in recent weeks). It is classy and full of life. You owe it to yourself to experience its rewards. Tell your children about it, and then they'll deserve to experience it, too.

And remember that full-on chorus of nuns? Like I said, "THRILLING."

"The Sound of Music," with book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, music by Richard Rodgers and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, produced by Lyric Opera of Chicago, runs through May 25, 2014 at the Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive in Chicago. For tickets and additional information, please visit

PHOTO CREDIT: Lyric Opera of Chicago

PHOTOS: (top) Edward Hibbert and Billy Zane; Jenn Gambatese and the children; Christine Brewer and the Nuns' Chorus; Betsy Farrar and Zach Sorrow; Elizabeth Futral, Billy Zane and Jenn Gambatese

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