Photo. Courtesy of the Stratford Festival
STRATFORD, Ont. — Yes, it can have the texture of syrup. Yes, it is
historically questionable when it comes to the allegedly real-life
story it tells. And yes, in the character of Maria, the convent reject
who changes her world and the world of those around her through the power of song, we have a young heroine who is almost too good to be true. Yet, none of this seems to matter when The Sound Of Music receives as good a production as the one that took confident possession of the Stratford’s Festival Theatre Tuesday night. No matter that Rodgers and Hammerstein’s most beloved musical continues to be done to death — indeed Stratford’s previous production was comparatively recent. No matter that it’s by no means Rodgers and Hammerstein’s best show — that honor probably belongs to the dark-hued Carousel, which is also being mounted at the festival this summer. But this production benefits from Donna Feore’s secure and imaginative direction, a strong visual component and some stellar performances.
Feore seems determined to find some fibre in the sugary confection that constitutes this musical. She wants to give the material more spine. American import Stephanie Rothenberg, who plays Maria, proves to be of prime importance in serving this need. On opening night you were a bit uncertain about Rothenberg at the beginning: her mannered and overly studied rendition of the title song lacked spontaneity and didn’t really jell with the image of the idyllic young postulant, stealing a few heady moments of freedom in her beloved mountains before returning to the cloisters.
But by the time Maria arrives at the widowed Captain Von Trapp’s home to take on the job of governess to his seven unruly children, Rothenberg has relaxed and is taking confident possession of her character. And with that delightfully staged moment when the militaristic-minded captain marches the youngsters on stage, and into the hearts of Maria and the audience, the show’s virtues are firmly taking hold.
Then, when Maria disarms her suspicious young charges and leads them into a romping rendition of Do-Re-Mi, her way of introducing them to the joys of music, we learn a few more things about Rothenberg’s approach to this role. And they’re all to the good. The milk and honey are still there. Hammerstein’s lyrics and the type of book written for the show by Howard Lindsay and Russell Crouse make that inevitable. But dare we say there’s more boldness in this Maria than we normally encounter, a touch of gutsy determination cutting through the liquid sentimentality, even a comic flair. To be sure, we know that she’s going to fall for The Captain and do all the other things required of her, but we’re still getting more from this Maria than we bargained for. And that’s refreshing.
A further strength of this production is the presence of a Captain Von Trapp who is more than a stick of wood. Ben Carlson is delivering a splendid performance here — and not only in his amusing early appearances as the rigid martinet who summons his motherless children by blowing on a whistle and is appropriately exasperated when Maria replaces their grim military-style uniforms with more colorful outfits sewn out of the discarded curtains from her bedroom. There’s heart and soul in this Von Trapp, a lonely widower burdened by a continuing grief and growing anger over the threat of a Nazi takeover of Austria. Then comes one of the show’s signature moist-eyed moments: for the first time since his wife’s death, Von Trapp hears the sound of music in the family home, and the icicle in his heart melts. By this time Carlson, who also sings beautifully throughout the evening, is making one thing clear: this is as good a Von Trapp as we’re ever likely to see anywhere.
The seven children in this production are a delight, both collectively and individually. For example, Alexandra Herzog, as the oldest daughter, Liesl, has some lovely moments when she joins forces with her youthful admirer, Rolf, nicely played by Gabriel Antonacci, to sing Sixteen Going On Seventeen, that paean to youthful rapture. These moments once again testify to the musical strengths of this production. The orchestra, hidden high above the stage, is superb under the baton of Laura Burton, a musical director whose ongoing commitment to excellence first reveals itself in the stirring nuns’ choruses at the very beginning.
There are problems in finding substance in some of the other characters as written. Robin Evan Willis seems defeated by the role of Elsa Schraeder, the woman the Captain also marries, and resorts to almost a parody of a frustrated and swivel-hipped femme fatale. But Peter Hutt is a good enough actor to inject an element of chilly menace into the character of that strutting Nazi, Herr Zeller, despite the fact that the role can easily invite a burlesque approach. Anita Krause, as the Mother Abbess, exists in the show for one fundamental reason — to bring Act One to a soul-stirring conclusion by telling Maria to Climb Every Mountain. And this Krause accomplishes to tumultuous applause. And then there is Shane Carty bringing charm and humor to the role of Max Detweiler, the resourceful impresario who facilitates the family’s escape from Nazi-controlled Austria and into the legend that became the Trapp Family Singers
The Sound Of Music is essentially a feel-good fantasy, one that resorts to the sanitizing devices of musical theatre to distance itself emotionally from the real hideousness of Anschluss. This is a problem addressed directly by Western University academic Darren C.Marks in a fascinating article in the printed programme. Marks acknowledges the charges of sentimentality and historical inaccuracy that have been leveled against this show over the years and suggests that it might best be accepted as a fable. Marks is on to something here. Consider another legendary musical, Frank Loesser’s Guys And Dolls. It was billed as a musical fable of Broadway, and you always knew that the endearing low-lifers of the Damon Runyon stories that inspired it were far removed from the real thing.
Perhaps taking a cue from Marks, this Stratford revival does reveal a touch of the fairy tale. Donna Feore has chosen to use Tanya Moiseiwitch’s legendary Festival Theatre stage, complete with centre balcony, for this production, and there’s magic in the result. The element of the make-believe extends to the gleaming golds and shimmering stained glass of Michael Gianfrancesco’s designs. It’s not quite real — unless, of course, we see it part of a reassuring parable about the power of faith, courage, fortitude and love over the monsters of the night.
So perhaps we should accept The Sound Of Music on its own peculiar and seductive terms. But it can’t leave us totally blinkered and complacent — not when it shares Stratford’s opening week playbill with The Diary Of Anne Frank.
(The Sound Of Music continues to Oct. 18. Ticket information at 1 800 567 1600)