Studio Tenn and CPA Arts' THE SOUND OF MUSIC Provides Pleasant Summertime Entertainment

Onstage through July 16, THE SOUND OF MUSIC Marks the Welcome Return of Emily Tello Speck

By: Jun. 29, 2023
Studio Tenn and CPA Arts' THE SOUND OF MUSIC Provides Pleasant Summertime Entertainment
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Studio Tenn and CPA Arts' THE SOUND OF MUSIC Provides Pleasant Summertime Entertainment

One of musical theater’s most beloved offerings, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music is again brought to life by Studio Tenn in a lovely – and certainly crowd-pleasing – production through July 16 at Christ Presbyterian Academy’s Soli Deo Center, which marks the welcome return to the Nashville stage of director/choreographer Emily Tello Speck, who helms this production with her confident style and considered artistic vision.

Studio Tenn and CPA Arts' THE SOUND OF MUSIC Provides Pleasant Summertime Entertainment Rodgers and Hammerstein's The Sound of Music could very well be the most-often viewed of the legendary duo's iconic works for the musical theatre, what with the seemingly endless parade of televised airings of the acclaimed 1965 film version, the frequent professional revivals of the stage show (Studio Tenn last presented the musical in 2012 in an acclaimed production starring Jessica Grove and Ben Davis) and, of course, the fondness for the piece exemplified by the multiple mountings in regional and community theaters all over the world. The musical's lush score, its likable heroine, its vaguely historic (if largely inaccurate) retelling of a true story and all those fresh-faced youngsters (Studio Tenn has them by the dozen in 2023, with two casts of youngsters alternating in the roles of the von Trapp siblings) singing "Do-Re-Mi" have made The Sound of Music a favorite of musical theater fans since its 1959 debut on Broadway.

Yet unlike Oklahoma!, The Sound of Music lacks a spirit of conviviality (save for a few scenes where Maria and the von Trapp youngsters engage in frivolity), and unlike South Pacific, it lacks the incumbent gravitas required for its theme of racism, despite the fact that it deals with the flight from the Nazis by the von Trapp family, who ultimately settled in America.

Studio Tenn and CPA Arts' THE SOUND OF MUSIC Provides Pleasant Summertime Entertainment What remains most striking about The Sound of Music, after reviewing numerous renditions (I’ve lost count), is the creakiness of the book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse. Based on several works about The Von Trapp Family Singers, the group of Austrian emigres who found musical fame in the United States in the aftermath of World War II, Lindsay and Crouse's book eschews the more contemporary idioms of musical theater to instead recall the light and frothy notions of operetta in telling the highly fictionalized and romanticized story of the family of singing siblings, their stern father and their loving stepmother.

Now onstage in a pleasant revival enlivened by notable performances by Laurie Veldheer as postulant turned governess Maria Rainer, Brian Charles Rooney as bon vivant/impresario Max Detwiler, Rebekah Howell as the no nonsense and gloriously voiced Mother Abbess – along with some of Nashville’s most revered and respected performers like Geoff Davin, Nan Gurley, Matthew Carlton, Jennifer Whitcomb-Oliva and Nathan Quay Thomas in supporting roles, along with a smattering of promising newcomers (Sachiko Nicholson of Belmont University Musical Theatre is a name to remember, to be sure) – The Sound of Music is a solid choice for a summer production guaranteed to appeal to theater-goers in search of entertaining diversions that are closer to home.

Studio Tenn and CPA Arts' THE SOUND OF MUSIC Provides Pleasant Summertime Entertainment
Brian Charles Rooney, Sophie Goron and
John-Mark MaGaha

The play’s action moves along at a fairly quick pace (Lindsay and Crouse’s deceptively slight book is augmented by Rodgers and Hammerstein's memorable score, amounting for its two-and-a-half hour running time), even if it results in situations that seem preposterous at times, straining credulity for the sake of storytelling. Sure, the von Trapps are fleeing the Nazis in the wake of the Anschluss, but they still have time to sing a sprightly tune before hiking over the Alps to Switzerland (in reality, the family walked to the local train station and took a train to Italy). The script condenses the lives of the people characterized in The Sound of Music in order to exploit the family’s dramatic potential, which means that in one scene Captain Georg von Trapp (played by Studio Tenn favorite John-Mark MaGaha) argues about Nazi family values, sings a song about how there's "No Way To Stop It" –  "it" being the inevitable annexation of Austria by the Third Reich – ends an engagement to the shallow Elsa Schraeder (played with sophistication and stylish wit by Sophie Goron), welcomes the returning Maria (who had fled to the Abbey to consider the "special feelings" she has developed for Georg), gives her the still-warm engagement ring from his coat pocket and seals the deal with a romantic kiss. Clearly, that's a lot of ground to cover in ten minutes onstage and while it does propel the story along, the suspension of disbelief upon which so much theater depends is less than convincing at times.

Studio Tenn and CPA Arts' THE SOUND OF MUSIC Provides Pleasant Summertime Entertainment
Laurie Veldheer and John-Mark MaGaha

To be quite frank, The Sound of Music is not among my favorite Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals (as you have probably guessed), but this particular Studio Tenn production is distinguished by the vocal performances, along with the stellar playing by the musicians in musical directors Stephen Kumar and Nate Strasser’s remarkable orchestra, of Tello Speck’s noteworthy ensemble. Make no mistake about it, Nashville audiences are very lucky indeed: in a city filled with talented performers, where it often seems as if everyone can sing (and, more often than not, do it well), the cast of The Sound of Music is exemplary! Clearly, MaGaha and Veldheer provide the production with strong vocals as the musical’s leading players, but the artistry on display by the entire ensemble is startling and stunning, not the least of which is Howell’s exquisite voice that will make you yearn to hear her sing “Climb Every Mountain” for the rest of your life.

MaGaha gives a solid performance as the family patriarch and Veldheer is charming as Maria, while Rooney plays Max with a devilish sense of glee and Goron is perfectly arch as Elsa. Howell, Whitcomb-Oliva, Nicholson and Emily McCormick are delightful as the coterie of nuns who run the Abbey, artfully blending a no-nonsense approach with compassion and empathy. Gurley and Carlton are ideally cast as Frau Schmidt and Franz, the von Trapp family retainers.

Studio Tenn and CPA Arts' THE SOUND OF MUSIC Provides Pleasant Summertime Entertainment
Nathan Quay Thomas and Grayson Stranko

Grayson Stranko is coolly confident as the eldest von Trapp child, Liesl, and she is nicely partnered with Thomas as Rolf, the romantic messenger with fascist leanings. The pair’s courtship is given more attention in the production, thanks to Tello Speck’s inventive choreography (which utilizes Rolf’s bicycle) for “Sixteen Going on Seventeen.”

The opening night performance featured the Do Re Mi cast – Keller Kennedy, Mia Blaise Campbell, Daniel MaGaha, Amelia Mason, Miley McClain and Olivia MaGaha – as the six younger von Trapp children, making the most of their time onstage and effectively showcasing their burgeoning talents to perfection.

Studio Tenn and CPA Arts' THE SOUND OF MUSIC Provides Pleasant Summertime Entertainment Andrew Cohen provides the scenic design that transforms the stage into any number of Austrian settings (kudos to Kyle Odum for his eye-popping projections), which are illuminated by Michael Barnett’s atmospheric lighting design. Danny Northup’s sound design ensures that every note sung is heard and every line uttered understood.

The Sound of Music. Music by Richard Rodgers. Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II. Book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse. Directed and choreographed by Emily Tello Speck. Musical direction by Stephen Kummer and Nate Strasser. Stage managed by Maya Denning. Presented by Studio Tenn and CPA Arts at Soli Deo Center, Christ Presbyterian Academy, Nashville. Through July 16. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (with one 15-minute intermission).


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