Review: Rodgers & Hammerstein's THE SOUND OF MUSIC at the Carrollwood Players

Runs Through June 24th!

By: Jun. 03, 2023
Review: Rodgers & Hammerstein's THE SOUND OF MUSIC at the Carrollwood Players

If you have a theatre company and you want to make money, then there are certain shows that are guaranteed to do the trick: Annie, Grease, and perhaps the most beloved of all musicals, THE SOUND OF MUSIC.  This is a work so adored, mainly thanks to the 1965 Julie Andrews film, that audience members love singing along to its myriad of famous tunes (“My Favorite Things,” “Do Re Mi,” “Edelweiss,” and the title song).  It has everything you want in a musical--a real-life love story; mischievous-but-goodhearted children who sing and dance; salty but lovable nuns; a Brat Pack-like subplot for teens; Nazi baddies; and even a little girl’s hurt finger.  All that’s missing is a warm kitten.

Watching THE SOUND OF MUSIC, the audience ooh’s and aah’s at the children’s cuteness, and all is well with the world, even with irritable Nazi baddies bandying about.  It doesn’t hurt that it marked Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein’s last collaboration which led to the burgeoning sunset of the Golden Age of musicals.  And no matter what, even if you prefer shows that are much darker (Assassins, Cabaret), you can’t help but succumb to its many charms and are pretty much assured to have a sensationally entertaining evening.

The Carrollwood Players understand this.  They can have a season with gutsy musicals like Fun Home by bringing in a heavy-hitting box office behemoth and audience-pleaser like THE SOUND OF MUSIC. Ticket sales should be strong, and though I had several issues with this particular production at times, the child performers are so wonderful that you forgive any shortcomings. 

Chances are, if you are scrolling through Broadway World, then you should know the plot to THE SOUND OF MUSIC: It’s Austria in the 1930s, where a postulant, Maria Rainer, is sent from the Nonnberg Abbey to be the governess of a family of seven children, headed by their irascible military father, Captain Von Trapp.  The Captain’s wife has died and he resents anything that reminds him of her, including--gasp!--singing.  Maria, guitar in hand, teaches the children how to sing and how to enjoy life.  Their singing melts the father’s heart and, though he is supposed to be wed to a rich baroness, we know that he’s secretly in love with Maria.  Maria has feelings for him too, and when their feelings are exposed and the two eventually wed, that should make for a happy ending, right?  But the menacing Nazi’s have taken over Austria, and they want the Captain to lead their German navy.  What will he, an anti-fascist, do?  How will he safely escape his beloved country with his entire family?   

Be warned: There are major differences between the stage version of THE SOUND OF MUSIC and the famous film version.  For starters, “My Favorite Things” is sung early on by Maria and Mother Abbess and not, as in the film, during the rainstorm where the kids run into Maria’s room scared of the lightning and thunder. (In the stage version’s rainstorm scene, Maria and the kids croon “The Lonely Goatherd” sans marionettes.)  The Baroness and the Captain’s friend, Max, get two songs that, no matter how brilliantly they are performed, may be important to the musical’s overall theme but stop the show cold and were rightly excised from the film. These changes may seem minor, but to those audience members devoted to the film, they could be jarring.  

If you’re producing THE SOUND OF MUSIC, then the first thing you must have is an energetic, likable (nay, lovable) Maria.  In the latest Carrollwood Players production, they certainly have found that with Jenna Armstrong.  She comes across quite young, but she’s effervescent, full of verve, but there is also an appropriate shyness to her, especially when dealing with her feelings for the Captain.  And her emotions, when she is torn by love, seem so real.   Ms. Armstrong possesses a fine singing voice that sometimes couldn’t be heard over the (pre-recorded) music.  But she really comes into her own when she connects with the children.  There is a moment when she first meets the children, and you see her immediately interact with  young Gretl, and we see what they will soon see in her: Caring, loveliness, their living key to unlock the joy that’s been missing in their young lives.

Josh Miller as Captain Georg von Trapp also seems quite young, maybe too young.  He really grows into the role as the show proceeds, and by Act 2, we finally see the chemistry between him and Maria.  That said, we need to see that ah-ha moment early on when he first falls for her.  We also never believe he’s a starchy military man.  The Captain is puzzlement of a part, a maze of a personality, running the gamut from closed-hearted strict disciplinarian to loving dad and husband.  It’s an actor’s journey as well as a character’s, and Mr. Miller gets there by the end of the show. 

As Mother Abbess, Kathy Kennett has great facial expressions and a motherly demeanor that fits the part.  I miss the rafter-shaking voice needed for a song like “Climb Ev’ry Mountain”--a song that should induce goosebumps as we head into Intermission--but her acting shines through. 

Amy Currotto is appropriately attitudinal as Sister Berthe, and John Hooper provides much-needed humor as the scene-stealing Max Detweiler.  Jim Gunning is strong as the chief Nazi, Admiral von Schreiber.  And Jesse Peterson-Timmons plays a couple of roles, sometimes within seconds of each other (of these roles, his obnoxiously demanding Nazi, Herr Zeller, works best). I would like to have seen the Nazis in the audience for the Salzburg Festival scene, or hovering by the stage, and also for someone to run onstage when the von Trapp’s have escaped instead of boringly keeping the voices offstage. We miss the menace of the Third Reich closing in on our dear von Trapp’s.   

The rest of the adults in the cast include Nathan Bond, Jen Holmstrom, Anna Mae Petokas McNally, and Judith Sachs.

Of the adult roles, the two standouts for me are Brianna Filippelli as the Baroness Elsa Schrader and Lianne McDonnell-Kruger as Frau Schmidt, the housekeeper.  Ms. Filippelli radiates wealth and class as the rich girlfriend of the Captain, and at times, she seems to be the only one in the right time period.  She also boasts a beautiful singing voice. And Ms. McDonnell-Kruger owns the stage when she enters as Frau Schmidt, proving that even a relatively small role can be one of the most memorable.

But in this production, it’s the kids who shine the brightest. With young performers, I always look to see if they are in character, still in the moment, even when it’s not their lines.  And ALL of them do it here, under the guidance of their marvelous director, Ann K. Lehman. THE SOUND OF MUSIC starts off slowly and somewhat shakily and then bursts to life when the kids enter. And soon enough we are privileged to witness the cutest rendition of “Do Re Mi” ever.

The energetic, charming von Trapp children are portrayed by Kaedin Cammareri as Liesl, Lorelei Partilla as Friedrich, Marley Holmstrom as Louisa (fabulous facial reactions), Malcolm Kruger as Kurt, Natalie Nilsen as Brigitta, Abby Tagliaferro as Marta and the adorable six-year-old-but-already-a-pro Olivia Bond as Gretl.  They sing beautifully and interact onstage so well.  There’s an unspoken, completely natural scene in “The Lonely Goatherd” number where Liesl emerges from the bathroom and puts her hand on younger brother Kurt’s shoulder, and he grins broadly having the time of his life with a pillow fight.

All of the von Trapp children seem to be having the time of their lives.  And so does the audience whenever the kids are onstage.

In “Sixteen Going on Seventeen,” Ms. Cammareri’s Leisl and Ahmi Santiago-Turner as her boyfriend, Rolf, do a fine job, especially when they are flirting.  You can see how much she adores him, like a teen girl suddenly in the presence of her very own Harry Styles.  The song does go on too long, and their flirting needs to keep building as it moves toward a kiss. Mr. Santiago-Turner is always a joy to watch onstage, but later in the show, when Rolf shows his allegiance to the new regime, we need to see more of a coldness, a frightening detachment; here, he still seems like a nice guy, even when he sports a swastika armband and maybe that’s on purpose.

All of the young performers are outstanding, but special mention must be paid to Natalie Nilsen who shines as Brigitta, always lurking slyly, always calculating and in the moment.  She’s a real actress with a tremendous future if she wants.  And there’s a star-in-the-making with yon Olivia Bond’s Gretl. 

The vocals are all over the place (Mary Jo Hahn is listed as the Musical Director).  Some of the blocking, such as in the song “Maria,” leaves something to be desired, but when the cast moves around to Devan Bittinger's choreography, it works.  The set is a no frills affair that is functional and features a painted Alps background; that said, the scene changes need to be quicker so the show’s pacing doesn’t lag (with an extended Intermission, it runs roughly three hours). 

Moira Caraballo’s costumes work for the most part, but I still don’t know why Freidrich and Kurt don’t don jackets during Maria and the Captain’s wedding sequence.

THE SOUND OF MUSIC has lots of good things going for it, but best of all are those kids, some of whom will have their lives changed by this theatrical experience.  And if your heart doesn’t melt with Olivia Bond’s Gretl and her various solo moments, including the end of “So Long, Farwell,” then you better get an appointment with your cardiologist quick!

THE SOUND OF MUSIC at the Carrollwood Players runs through June 24th. Get your tickets soon because they are selling out. 

Photo by: Beth Behner.

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