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“The Sound of Music” at the Ahmanson Shines Like New

Kerstin Anderson plays Maria, here surrounded by the Von Trapp children, in the brand new production of Rodgers & Hammerstein’'s “The Sound of Music,” starting its national tour at the Ahmanson. [Photo: Matthew Murphy]

Kerstin Anderson plays Maria, here surrounded by the Von Trapp children, in the brand new production of Rodgers & Hammerstein’’s “The Sound of Music,” starting its national tour at the Ahmanson. [Photo: Matthew Murphy]

Like most people of my generation, “The Sound of Music” has been a constant since childhood. I was taken to see the film during its first Hollywood run, complete with the Bill Baird puppets in the theater’s show window. Though generally not one to like a film of a Broadway show over the original, I admit to having been underwhelmed by the between 18 and 20 renditions of the original, stage version of the show I have seen since I hit adulthood. In my experience, that Broadway musical (including the “live” television production a couple of years ago) tends to lack the energy, romance and pathos which charged the later film.

Then came the new production just born at the Ahmanson, prior to an extensive national tour. The clearest metaphor I can come up with is that moment when an art curator cleans centuries of dirt and varnish off of a finely crafted painting: suddenly the thing looks bright and new. So does this venerable piece. And what a delight this metamorphosis is to watch.

The tale was adapted from the autobiography of Maria Von Trapp. As we all know, a young postulant named Maria is assigned from her abbey to become governess to the children of a distinguished and wealthy World War I naval officer. The Captain, his seven children, the wealthy and manipulative baroness interested in the Captain, the apolitical concert promoter, even the warmhearted housekeeper and nascent Nazis are all in place. The Rodgers and Hammerstein songs have become almost cliche they are so universally known, and the story’s underscore of love’s battle with self-focus and rising evil becomes remarkably fresh in this new rendition.

Of the many things this production does right, the absolute key is casting. Rather than going for big names who either don’t connect with each other or can’t get under the characters’ skins, this one goes for people who become organic to the story and create the elemental interconnection which makes the piece work so well.

Young Kerstin Anderson is Maria: radiating a genuine and unabashed innocence and enthusiasm which proves absolutely infectious. Ben Davis changes Captain Von Trapp from the usual frosty man in need of a dose of humanity into a deeply human but deeply hurt widower who has retreated into a world he can control. Thus, the life which bounds from him when he opens up makes the show shimmer.

Also importantly, the overtly privileged Baroness Schraeder and the charming but untrustworthy Max Detweiler, in the hands of Teri Hansen and Merwin Foard, bring back into focus the smarmy bits of the story: two people willing to adjust to invasion and domination as long as their own personal worlds remain afloat. Ashley Brown brings down the house as the Reverend Mother – finding humor and pathos in her unwieldy charge, and the need to referee among her larger flock. Darren Mathias and Donna Garner create rounded characters from the Captain’s servants, and Carey Rebecca Brown – as both the annoyed Sister Berthe and a surprised party guest – creates memorable moments in characters onstage for only short moments.

As for the children, they manage a genuine quality while singing and dancing like old pros. Most especially, Paige Silvester’s Liesl proves a breath of fresh air, as she makes the girl really look and act like a 16-year-old, rather than someone pretending to be that young. By contrast – and it is the only questionable casting in the piece – Dan Tracy’s Rolf may sing that he is 17, but he looks about 25, which gives a bit of a creepy undertone to his sequences with the young Liesl.

Still, to stop at casting would be to miss the totality which lies at the feet of director Jack O’Brien. It is he who has created the sense of ensemble and the flow of the piece. Indeed, his use of Douglas W. Schmidt’s fascinatingly mobile, modular set keeps the story moving in such a fluid way one is surprised time has flown so quickly. Costume designer Jane Greenwood seats her artistry clearly in both the period and the Austrian countryside, right down to the lederhosen (though Rolf’s don’t seem to fit quite right). Danny Mefford’s choreography manages the feel of the traditional without once becoming a copy of what one is used to.

In short, this “The Sound of Music” has tensions and realities left out of the filmed version. The Nazis are genuinely scary, and genuinely seductive to some of the characters. The threat to the Von Trapps, and even the tensions between the German military and the Gestapo lie just under the surface as the tale plays out. The songs have more of a point, and the innocent warmheartedness of Maria becomes both a healer and its own kind of threat to those who care only for themselves. And the singing is absolutely gorgeous.

So, go see “The Sound of Music,” as it will be unlike any other you have encountered, even for those of us who think we’ve seen it all. And then there are those for whom it is new. One of the evening’s most charming moments came as Maria is about to leave the Von Trapp family, and a patron in the row behind me, who had obviously never seen the thing before, began chanting under her breath, “Oh, don’t go. Don’t go. Don’t go.” Admittedly, this is a classic American musical of the kind they don’t make anymore. But Oscar Hammerstein was in his own way the first to put social commentary into what had been up until then mostly musical entertainment. To see that highlighted again – for the first time in a long time – is a joy indeed.

What: “The Sound of Music” When: Through October 31, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, and 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. on Sundays with a 2 p.m. performance Thursday, October 29 Where: The Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave. in downtown Los Angeles How Much: $25 – $150 Info: (213) 972-4400 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

A Tuneful Mash-Up: the new-old “Sound of Music” in Claremont

Sarah Elizabeth Combs as Maria, teaches the von Trapp children to sing in Candlelight Pavilion's "Sound of Music"

Sarah Elizabeth Combs as Maria, teaches the von Trapp children to sing in Candlelight Pavilion’s “Sound of Music”

The new, and extremely well performed production of “The Sound of Music” at Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater in Claremont provided another fascination I had not expected. The script sent from the Rodgers and Hammerstein Company is a mash-up of stage and screen versions which first appeared for the Broadway revival in 1998. Trying to honor both is a tricky business, and ends up making some attitude shifts a bit abrupt. It aims to appease the movie buffs yet leaves some of the characterizations from the starker stage original. Thanks to a good cast, the results are generally good, but a bit startling nonetheless.

Understand that the 1959 stage musical – the last written by Rodgers and Hammerstein, as Oscar Hammerstein died not long after it opened – is vastly different from the famed 1965 film in specifics, though not in general story line. For example, several songs, including the sardonic “How Can Love Survive,” “No Way to Stop It” and “Ordinary Couple” were removed for the film, and replaced with songs Rodgers wrote alone: “I Have Confidence,” and “Something Good.”

Though included in the stage version, “The Lonely Goatherd” and “My Favorite Things” were shifted to different scenes in the film, as was much of the chant-based religious music sung by the nuns. The Baroness out for Von Trapp’s hand is far more conniving in the stage version, with the scent of a collaborator on her as thoroughly as that on a decidedly less lovable Max. Anyone who sees the show in its original onstage version after falling in love with the film is bound to find the shift rather startling, and perhaps even disappointing.

At the Candlelight, they have handled this reimagining as well as one could hope. The Baroness is still a stinker, and “How Can Love Survive” underscores that, though it is the only one of the “dropped” songs to survive. “I Have Confidence” heralds Maria’s arrival at the Von Trapp household, and “Favorite Things” appears at the same spot – Maria’s bedroom during a storm – as in the film. “Something Good” replaces “Ordinary Couple” as the second act love song, and “Lonely Goatherd” has a brand new spot as the kids’ performance at the music festival. In the end, though a fine production, it leaves bits of character and story kind of hanging out there, while trying to be the best of both worlds.

Dimyana Pelev as the wealthy Baroness, and John LaLonde as Capt. von Trapp

Dimyana Pelev as the wealthy Baroness, and John LaLonde as Capt. von Trapp

Fortunately, a really fine batch of performers keeps too much from getting lost in the interweaving of story lines. Sarah Elizabeth Combs has an innate sweetness, a lovely voice, and enough gumption to make a charming Maria. John LaLonde makes a commanding figure as Captain von Trapp, though one wishes he had the chance to build up his singing of “Edelwiess” enough to make his emotional catch make sense.

Kim Blake gets better and better as the Mother Superior. Jod Orrison, Valerie Jasso and Kate Lee cluck and hover appropriately as the other rather critical nuns. Dimyana Pelev, despite a mildly unfortunate wig, makes a neatly calculating Baroness Elsa, while Frank Minano has fun with the sponging Max. Zack Crocker makes a charmingly youthful Rolf, and Courtney Cheatham matches him neatly as the adolescent Leisl.

The other children, Katie Ochoa, Matthew Funke, Haven Watts, Wyatt Larrabee, Brooklyn Vizcarra and Alison Bradbard the night I saw it (most are double-cast) are almost surprisingly good for a company this size. They sing and dance well, virtually all of the time, and work together as a unit to excellent effect. This sense of polish extends to the small but well utilized ensemble which supports these major players.

Director Douglas Austin has worked particularly hard to create the sense of ensemble, particularly between the main adults and the children. The results are self-evident, as the show flows as smoothly as this new script will let it. Chuck Ketter’s scenic design manages to make that tiny stage look mansion-like, which is no small feat. The lighting design of Steve Giltner works as well as possible, given a technical glitch or two.

In short, the results of this production are more charming than not, once you get over the differences from what you expect. It’s perfect family fare, and comes complete with a fine dinner (including kid-friendly fare) so another generation can fall in love with the girl who unites a family through music and evades the Nazis through love. That it bears only vague resemblance to the actual story of the actual Von Trapp Family Singers long ago became inconsequential.

What: “The Sound of Music” When: Through March 24, Thursday through Saturday dinners at 6 p.m., Sunday dinners at 5 p.m., with Saturday and Sunday brunch at 11 a.m. Where: Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theatre, 455 W. Foothill Blvd in Claremont How Much: $53 – $68 adults, $25 children 12 and under, meal inclusive Info: (909) 626-1254 ext 1 or http://www.candlelightpavilion.com

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