BWW Review: A Euphoric, Breathtaking Production of Rodgers & Hammerstein's THE SOUND OF MUSIC at the Asolo Rep in Sarasota
How do you solve a problem like THE SOUND OF MUSIC?
Here is a show that is perhaps the most beloved of all musicals, where audience members know the lyrics as well as the performers do (and oftentimes loudly sing along with them). Its many fans joyously and unapologetically feast on slices of its hokum pie. It has everything to make it as family-friendly as possible: a true-life romance, children singers, salty nuns, a curmudgeonly dad, a teenage love subplot, Nazi villains, and a little girl's hurt finger. All that's missing is an injured puppy. Since its original Mary Martin-led Broadway production (which premiered 60 years ago this November) and especially the Oscar-winning 1965 movie starring Julie Andrews, THE SOUND OF MUSIC exemplifies the last grasp and gasp of saccharine musicals. The year after the movie enthralled audiences and yet at the same time made many critics wince, Cabaret came to Broadway to usher in the newer, darker, cooler era of musicals.
So, where does that leave theatre lovers who like their musicals the way they like their Sumatra Satin Coffee: extremely black? What about those of us who appreciate that THE SOUND OF MUSIC was Rodgers and Hammerstein's last collaboration before Hammerstein's death, and understand its importance to millions of fans, but still cannot warm to its excessive displays of warmth? What hope is there for us in the land of Maria, the Captain and the von Trapp Family Singers?
Never fear. The Asolo Rep's magnificent production of THE SOUND OF MUSIC has solved the show's many problems.
Going into this performance, I was one of its snarling nay-sayers. Not that I didn't like THE SOUND OF MUSIC before, but I just thought it was way too much of a gooey confection for my tastes. I preferred my Sweeney Todd worst pies in London to the "schnitzel with noodles" and "tea with jam and bread" of THE SOUND OF MUSIC. But seeing the stunningly mounted production at the Asolo on the show's 60th anniversary was like seeing it anew.
In the hands of the gloriously talented director/choreographer, Josh Rhodes, this SOUND OF MUSIC is more than just a show. You sense that it's a celebration of sorts, an Event with a capital "E." And it changed my opinion of a show that I knew too well (seeing it dozens of times and even directing a production years ago). But let me shout this from the snow-capped mountaintops: This is the finest SOUND OF MUSIC you will ever see, and one of the best musicals I have experienced in recent years.
I also never realized that this particular musical could feel so fresh. The dialogue among several of its characters--a nation divided, torn, before being taken over--feels so contemporary, a mirror to our world today. Are we, like Captain von Trapp, on the right side of history? In one key scene, Nazi flags are lowered around the audience as stormtroopers menacingly stalk the theatre aisles. The director smartly included an ornate mirrored backdrop that reminded me of what Hal Prince did with Cabaret--placing a giant mirror onstage, so that the audience could never escape the turmoil; in fact, they were in the middle of it, their reflections horrifyingly peppered with swastikas. Cabaret did that in the 1960's; who knew that THE SOUND OF MUSIC could accomplish that same effect in 2019?
The show is a technical marvel. The opening "Preludium," set in the dark abbey as nuns sing and candles float in the air, was so lovely to the eyes and ears that it could turn even the most ardent atheist into a believer then and there. The audience knew right away that this was going to be one special production. Paul Tate dePoo III's scenic design, aided by Cory Pattak's ethereal lighting, was thrilling, perhaps the finest of the year, with the Alps always outlined, almost subconsciously. Set pieces fly in and fly out, and the show moves so stunningly, so smoothly; this is one of best-paced, most entertaining productions you will ever see.
The cast is outstanding. Leading the way is Maddie Shea Baldwin as a most robust Maria. She enters the show via a trapdoor, flashing a mile-wide smile and throwing her shoes, and the audience instantly falls in love. She brings a youthful verve to the part, euphoric, sort of a cheerleader for life. Sometimes Ms. Baldwin teeters on being overzealous, in an "Up with People" kind of way, but she never totally dives into that trap. She's strong, scrappy and spunky, bursting with energy. We love watching her and listening to her incredible voice in such standards as "The Sound of Music," "I Have Confidence," and her various numbers with the von Trapp children. (The songs are so familiar that the whole musical sounds like Rodgers & Hammerstein's Greatest Hits.)
Tally Sessions is sturdy and strong as the Captain. Yes, it takes time to warm up to him, but that's the key ingredient of the part. You feel that the Captain is rushing through life at first, never wanting to stop to feel anything (after the death of his wife), and Maria brings out his humanity. But his strength has always been there, as he stands up to the Nazis and even breaks off his wedding engagement to Baroness Elsa Schraeder due to political beliefs. At the end, his "Edelweiss," the last song Oscar Hammerstein ever wrote, will break your heart.
As Schraeder, Kate Loprest is lovely and powerful at the same time. She also shows a hint of vulnerability, and she's not just a caricature, the "other woman" that the audience is supposed to hate. She's a fully developed person, even if it's not always in the script (she's great with a backward glance, saying more than words ever could). Unfortunately, she sings the show's weakest numbers along with the flamboyant Max (a scene-stealing Darren Matthias, who resembles MSNBC's John Heilemann): "How Can Love Survive" and "No Way to Stop It." The songs are brilliantly performed here, beautifully sung by Loprest and Matthias, but they stop the show cold; this is a problem with the musical itself, not the particular production. (Both songs were rightfully cut from the movie.)
Perhaps the best in the cast award (along with Baldwin's Maria) goes to Liz McCartney as Mother Abbess. Her voice in "Climb Ev'ry Mountain" could actually move mountains. She rocked the rafters, and she ended the first Act with the audience breathless and goose-fleshed. Imposing and towering over the other nuns, but full of heart and soul, she is a stunning presence. And she's marvelously aided by Kristin Carbone, Adrianne Hick and Kristin Renee Young in the funny nun number, "Maria" (better known to audiences as "How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?").
Ann Morrison is always a wonder onstage, and she's so real and grounded as Frau Schmidt. Nick Locilento makes the most of the part of Franz, the butler-turned-Nazi. Cole Doman is appropriately creepy as Rolf, Liesl's beau who also becomes a Nazi. He resembles an Aryan Ted Bundy.
And then there are the von Trapp children. These talented urchins steal the audience's heart, and there was much awing from the people around me. They danced and sang brilliantly, always in character, in such numbers as "Do Re Mi," "Reprise: The Sound of Music," and the so-catchy-it-can't-get-out-of-my-head "So Long, Farewell."
Sophie Lee Morris' Liesl stands out in beauty and in voice; her duet with Doman in "Sixteen Going on Seventeen," complete with bicycle tricks, was to die for. Sophia Caballuzzi as Brigitta, Tyler Gevas as Kurt, Judah Immanuel as Friedrich, Raina Lynn Khatami and Allie McLaughlin as Marta are all sensational finds. Special mention must go to Cora Messer as Gretl, the youngest von Trapp and the cutest, sweetest little Gretl you will find.
This was such a joyous production, with amazing vocals and harmonies, thanks to music director Jordon Cunningham and the orchestra: William Brown on drums, Tom Ellison and Harley Sommerfeld on reeds, Jonathan Godfrey on guitar, Ally Jenkins on violin, Monica MacMichael on viola, Brandan Maharaj and Dana Williams on the French horn, Isaac Mingus on cello, and Bill Swartzbaugh on bass.
THE SOUND OF MUSIC is a long show, but it moves fast as a breeze. Director Josh Rhodes has guided a production that will be talked about for years, bringing to life a show that I didn't know had a second life to it. You felt the vibe after the performance, after the thunderous standing ovation. When the audience filed out of the theatre, revved up and energized, their eyes were excitedly wide open because they had just experienced something beyond good--a classic done right, reexamined and rejuvenated.
The word is out. THE SOUND OF MUSIC is a stunner. And if it can melt the heart of a curmudgeon like me, then imagine what it will do to you.
THE SOUND OF MUSIC at the Asolo Rep in Sarasota runs thru December 28th.