The Sound of Music: a Dismal Wrong-headed Revival of this Musical

Reviewed by Jamie Portman

The next time the National Arts Centre English Theatre tackles something like The Sound of Music perhaps it should seek guidance from people who know what they’re doing.

Perhaps someone like Ottawa’s distinguished community theatre group, Orpheus, which has been around for more than a century and enjoys a solid reputation for maintaining professional standards in the staging of its musicals.

The NAC’s godawful treatment of a seminal Rodgers and Hammerstein hit will no doubt have its admirers. After all, familiarity breeds contentment, and there’s no surer way to ensure audience approval than to schedule a show so familiar, so popular, so ingrained in our cultural conscience, that we enter the theatre already humming the music we’re going to hear. Furthermore, there’s nothing like audience participation to ensure a further stilling of our discriminatory senses — hence the invitation we received the other night to sing along with the singers. If audience response seemed somewhat tepid on opening night, maybe that’s because some of the on-stage singing was falling lamentably below basic adequacy.

The Sound Of Music may be the most popular Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, but it is certainly not the best. More than 50 years ago critic Kenneth Tynan, appalled by the syrupy book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse and by the musical’s lack of dramatic spine, concluded that it was a show for “children of all ages — from six to about eleven-and-a-half.” Another critic, Judith Crist, saw no improvement in the film version, labelling it “icky sticky.” Even so, notwithstanding the critical scorn heaped on The Sound of Music over the years, it is only fair to note the continuing place it holds in the hearts of millions of fans. It’s also fair to acknowledge that, on its own terms, this admittedly loose adaptation of Maria von Trapp’s memoirs does have its own sturdy integrity.

That integrity should be respected in any production, but it doesn’t happen here. Joey Tremblay’s leaden direction and general lack of empathy for the material does have occasional moments of inspiration — but they tend to be unfortunate moments. When the nuns swing into their rendition of How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria, it suddenly becomes a drag number, with a couple of them revealing themselves as gravel-voiced males disguised in nun’s habits. One doubts whether New York’s R & H Theatricals, the devout keepers of the Rodgers and Hammerstein legacy, would be happy over such a crass display of contempt for the material.

Tremblay’s tastelessness resurfaces again near the evening’s end. Maria, the humble postulant, has been dispatched from the abbey to become governess to the children of widowed naval hero Captain Von Trapp. She has tamed these unruly youngsters by being cheerful and teaching them to sing, and in so doing has melted the stony heart of the autocratic captain. She marries him, the Trapp Family Singers become popular in Austria until the Nazi takeover of the country forces them to flee.

But before this flight to freedom happens there’s a stiffly staged confrontation scene between an autocratic Nazi admiral and the resolutely anti-Nazi von Trapp. Tremblay has assigned himself the role of the admiral, and, in an inappropriate and feeble attempt at a sight gag, has combed his hair down over his forehead in the manner of Adolf Hitler. Whatever possessed Tremblay to do this? Has he no sense of proportion? The Lindsay-Crouse book is pretty lame and shallow here, the dramatic shorthand all too facile, but one still needs an understanding director capable of ensuring such a scene strong underpinnings in performance and of reminding us that — for all the inadequacy of the writing — huge stakes are involved and the Von Trapp family is facing a monumental moment of truth. You don’t kick these underpinnings away with a display of juvenile silliness.

At the start of Act Two, the curtain remains lowered almost to the bottom to show us several pairs of prancing feet — a rather pointless aberration since the style seems more reminiscent of an American hoedown rather than an Austrian folk dance. Given that Sound Of Music is a show with few opportunities for dance, choreographer Dayna Tekatch must have been desperate to show that she’d earned her salary. But let’s face it, the dancing we do get is pretty pallid.

Still, keeping the curtain partially lowered for at least a brief time at the beginning of the second act, gives us a few minutes more respite from the sight of Roger Schultz’s peculiarly minimalist design for the show. Essentially, we are offered a long row of steps which allows characters to walk, scamper stride, stomp, and goose-step up and down. On the upper level, a three-piece instrumental ensemble headed by musical director Allen Cole is on display — sorry, music-lovers, there is no orchestra in the pit, no opportunity to hear Robert Russell Bennett’s superb orchestrations of Richard Rodgers’s often sublime score. Cole and his chums are certainly versatile — we get the mingled sounds of a violin, cello, piano, xylophone, mandolin and percussion instruments — but their contribution remains depressingly scrawny, undernourished and stylistically out of whack with the sensibility of the show.

Indeed, a production dominated by two basic performing levels topped by an instrumental trio smacks more of cut-rate cabaret than of a valid piece of theatre. But there are more substantive reasons why the NAC’s Sound Of Music qualifies as bad bargain-basement fare. It has to do with the performances.

Eliza-Jane Scott’s Maria has charm, vulnerability and an assured singing voice. She has some grasp of character. But does she really manage Maria’s emotional arc? Does she succeed in commanding our real affection and a genuine belief in the crises which confront her? I think not, but Scott is not entirely to blame. Any performer in this role would have trouble engaging emotionally with Dmitry Chepovetsky’s von Trapp, a performance so lifeless that that the good captain seems more like an animatronic creation or possibly the product of a taxidermist’s shop. It’s perhaps best to draw a veil over what this actor does to Edelweiss. As musical director, Allen Cole has produced some impressive choral work from the ensemble. But individual vocal contributions range from adequate to disastrous.

Not all the children are effectively cast, but they perform with a nice sense of ensemble and are amusing in responding to the regimental demands of their militaristic father. Leah Doz’s Liesl has a coltish charm when she joins David Coomber’s likeable Rolf for a lyrical rendition of Sixteen Going On Seventeen, but such nuggets of pleasure are infrequent.

An amusing Sheldon Elter does grasp the essence of Max, the ever resourceful manager (and fixer) but this is the kind of stock character who should be a no-brainer for any competent actor. The same can be said for the icy competence of Petrina Bromley’s portrayal of Elsa, the devious widow who has designs on the good captain.

This is the sort of production where you give up hoping that any performer will go the extra mile.

You also also stop expecting that even the important setpieces will be handled properly. The Mother Abbess’s soaring affirmation of fortitude, Climb Every Mountain, is there to provide an emotionally powerful climax to Act One and again to Act Two — but it doesn’t happen here. Quancetia Hamilton, whose bounciness and lack of gravitas in the role has been giving us pause all evening, appears to have been left hopelessly adrift when it comes to this musical’s two most crucial moments. She has been assigned a show-stopper number, perhaps the most famous of its kind in the entire Rodgers and Hammerstein canon, and the challenge overwhelms her both musically and dramatically. And who is to blame for that?

The Sound of Music

Music by Richard Rodgers

Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II

Book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse

National Arts Centre English Theatre

Director: Joey Tremblay

Musical Director: Allen Cole

Choreographer: Dayna Tekatch

Set and costumes: Roger Schultz

Lighting: Leigh Ann Vardy

Sound: Peter mcBoyle

Cast:

Maria……………………………………….Eliza-Jane Scott

Captain von Trapp………………………….Dmitry Chepovetsky

Liesl………………………………………..Leah Doz

Friedrich……………………………………James Loye

Louisa………………………………………Sarah Gibbons

Brigitta…………………………………….. Katie Ryerson

Kurt…………………………………………Allison Hess

Marta………………………………………..Madison Elizabeth Bellini/Petra Ginther

Gretl…………………………………………Clara Silcoff/Hana Woo

Mother Abbess………………………………Quancetia Hamilton

Sister Berthe/Frau Schmidt et al…………….Christine Brubaker

Sister Margaretta…………………………….Kristi Hansen

Elsa………………………………………….Petrina Bromley

Max………………………………………….Sheldon Elter

Rolf………………………………………….David Comber

Franz…………………………………………Pierre Brault

Admiral von Schreiber……………………….Joey Tremblay

Zeller………… . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Eric Davis


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