Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, December 2006
People often ask me: “Is it hard to review the same shows over and over again? What more is there to say about your twenty-third production of The Sound of Music?” The answer is simple: You never see the same show twice. I could attend every single performance of “The Sound of Music” at Cohoes – same cast, costumes, sets, etc. – and write a different review every time because theatre is a living medium. Like life itself, it is here for an instant and them gone forever.
So you may think that you know The Sound of Music but there is always more to learn, always a new way to look at the same material. The last time I saw and reviewed a production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s final collaboration (Hammerstein died before the Broadway opening of the show in 1959) was in the very intimate confines of the Mac-Haydn Theatre. There I was struck by the tight construction of the show and the very real threat posed to the Trapp family by the Nazi invasion of Austria.
Four years later under the proscenium arch at Cohoes, I was struck by the small size of the show and how much better it was ultimately suited to the movie screen than to the stage. Other than the music, I’ll bet one of your strongest impressions of the wildly popular 1965 film version is the beautiful Austrian scenery. You can’t get that on to any stage, and once you have seen it in glorious Technicolor, no scenic designers efforts are going to come close to the original.
I spent this past week in the company of Maria Augusta Kutschera von Trapp (1905-1987), reading her autobiographical 1949 book The Story of the Trapp Family Singers. It is still a great read, and I highly recommend it. It is fun to read a book and be able to see so clearly how great talents like Rodgers and Hammerstein could capture particular moments so perfectly in song. What came through loud and clear was that Maria was a force of nature. Looking the photograph below, which depicts Maria at about the time she first came to the Trapp estate to act as tutor to one of the Captain’s children, her face radiates youth, energy, intelligence, and a strong, healthy Tyrolean beauty. Julie Andrews was a pale, British imitation of the original.
Orphaned by the time she was six, Maria was raised by a strict socialist, atheist uncle. As soon as she was able, she sought the three things her childhood had lacked: religion, family, and music. Being an eminently intelligent woman, she went straight to Nonnberg Abbey, where she was guaranteed to find all three in one convenient package. And then fate brought her to her true calling as the second wife of the widowed Captain Georg Ritter von Trapp and step-mother to his seven children. While there are many discrepancies between “The Sound of Music” and the actual lives of the Trapp family, at its core is the astonishing true story of how a woman who needed a family and a family who needed her were brought together.
In the film, the link between Maria and the natural world which she so loved is established immediately with the opening shots over the majestic Alps until Maria, alone among the splendor of God’s creation, bursts into a hymn of praise. At Cohoes the show opens with a septet of nuns (Sandra Bauchiero, Rachael Cox, Ruth Cox, Paula Ginder, Barbara Howard, Katie Michalek, and Monica Wemitt as the Mother Abbess) lined up along the front of the stage singing in Latin, a virtual barricade between the audience and designer Jen Price Flick’s very lovely backdrop of the Alps. This is just the beginning of a long parade of static stage pictures that director Karen Culliver presents, each of them effectively preventing the audience from connecting with the story being told.
People have the image of The Sound of Music as a very happy show, which in many ways it is, but like any well-constructed play, the characters must journey to find their happiness, and here is where Culliver fails. Everyone is wildly happy from the outset, barely breaking a sweat when little inconveniences like grief, jealousy, and Nazi storm troopers appear. Maria wants to be happy at the convent, and the nuns want her to be happy there, but ultimately it is a bad fit. The Captain dearly loves his children but he is still mourning the loss of their mother. Elsa loves the Captain, the Captain loves his children, his children love Maria, Maria loves God – possibly the world’s first romantic entanglement involving seven minors, three adults, and a major deity. Leisl loves Rolf and is betrayed by him. The children loved their mother and she died. Do I have to continue? Normal humans bear these burdens every day and still manage to go to work and to school, to sing and to laugh, but that does not mean that they are without conflict. Culliver has her cast focus solely on the joy, which removes all tension and drama from the show.
What you have left are the music, which is performed beautifully, and the children. One thing you can count on at Cohoes is that any children on the stage will be exceptionally talented and obviously love performing. The show has been cast so that the two oldest children - Leisel (Brittany Boivin) and Friederich (Charles Franklin) – and little Gretl (Melissa Mele) are always played by the same performers, while the roles of Louisa, Kurt, Brigitta, and Marta alternate between two actors at different performances. I saw Sarah Mele as Louisa, Iain Bopp as Kurt, Zoe McGreevy as Brigitta, and Anna Lichoret as Marta. They were all cute as buttons and sang divinely. Franklin made good fun of the fact that he can currently sing soprano as well as tenor, which is a brave thing for an adolescent boy to do on stage. Bopp was a stand-out with a great voice and stage presence – I hope I get the chance to watch his career and talent progress.
And little Melissa Mele was beyond adorable as Gretl. It takes a very special kindergartener to stay focused on stage, to sing out loud and clear on cue and on key, and to remain so disarmingly unaffected and genuine throughout. I am sure it helps that she has a real-life big sister on stage with her at all times (Sarah Mele joins her in one cast as Louisa and Laura Mele appears as Brigitta in the other) but she was obviously fond of many of the other cast members as well.
Jerry Christakos continues his run as the all-purpose leading man at Cohoes. I have no problem with seeing the same actors over and over again at the same theatre, that is called having an acting company and it is usually a wise decision, but when Henry Higgins looks like Captain von Trapp looks like Georges looks like Fred Graham/Petruchio…it gets a little old. Georg von Trapp is not a particularly rewarding role either. He has to be grumpy to those adorable children and kiss up to the wrong woman for most of the show, and he doesn’t even get to sing until bitter end. The fact that, in this production, he is apparently extremely happy to be doing it doesn’t help us like him.
Another unfortunate bit of casting has the tantalizing Jerielle Morwitz as a very three-dimensional and attractive Elsa while Erin Kruse is a syrupy one-dimensional Maria. The two women seem perfectly suited to the roles they start out in – Maria in the Captain’s nursery and Elsa in his bed. There is no inkling of the iron-willed, intelligent, and energetic real-life Maria who beat the cold, aristocratic Princess to whom Captain von Trapp was all but engaged when they met. This is a true story, there must be a way to tell it convincingly on stage, but it has eluded Culliver and Kruse. After seeing this production I am rooting for an Elsa/Captain reunion.
At the performance I attended Wemitt was clearly the crowd favorite as the Mother Abbess, and why not? She is an experienced professional performer with a powerful voice and a winning smile that no wimple can conceal. And she gets to sing “Climb Every Moutain” – twice! What’s not to love? For all its Hammersteinian cock-eyed optimism that song stands out for its acknowledgment that you have to work hard to achieve your dreams. Maria gets the instant family and the music she craves, but that is just the beginning of her life’s journey.
While Wemitt is actually too young and pretty to be the Mother Abbess, Richard Gatta is too old and worldly to be the 17-going-on-18 Rolf. Rolf is ultimately both the villain and the hero of this story, and Culliver gave him short shrift. In fact, the whole Nazi threat was down-played to the point that I gasped when the red, black, and white flags* appeared for the scene at the Salzburg Festival. Jen Price Fick’s scenery and Matt Fick’s lighting for that scene were literally a shocking invasion into endlessly cheerful world Culliver and crew had created up to that point. Not even the appearance of Herr Zeller (Jeff Stone) and Admiral von Schreiber (Sky Vogel) with their swastika armbands and their cries of “Heil!” had prepared me for the stark sense of impending doom the Festival scene created.
And then there were the Trapps huddled in a little mass down left pretending to be, what? a bush in the Nonnberg Abbey garden? while the Nazis ran around backstage shouting. All sense of danger was completely shattered, and the climactic confrontation between the Captain and Leisel with Rolf deflated rapidly into the predictable happy ending.
Given the confines of the Cohoes stage and Culliver’s uninventive staging, the sets and lighting were much more than adequate. Pamela Keenan’s costumes are uneven – some perfect and some oddly off. If we are supposed to dislike Elsa why does she look so darned gorgeous all the time? And why do Kurt and Friedrich alternate between short and long pants? I didn’t believe for a minute that that was a World War I Austria naval uniform the Captain got married in. And why oh why was Kruse forced to wear the Millie wig from Thoroughly Modern Millie?
Cohoes has gone light on the musical accompaniment here, with just Musical Director Michael McAssey and Assistant Musical Director Adam Jones in the pit. Frankly, the music for this show is so wonderful and it was performed so beautifully, that I didn’t miss having a larger pit band. It was kind of like a cozy sing-along version.
And speaking of singing along, how I wish the audience had been invited to sing along with Edelweiss. Didn’t the “audience” sing along with Christopher Plummer in the film? Why should they have all the fun?
Another important musical note in this production is that the number How Can Love Survive? from the original Broadway production is performed in the first act, while Something Good**, composed by Rodgers for the film after Hammerstein’s death, takes the place of No Way to Stop It and Ordinary Couple from the stage version. Both “How Can Love Survive?” and “No Way to Stop It” were trios for the Captain, Elsa and Max, but here the former is performed by Elsa and Max alone. I had not heard it before and it struck me as jarringly Cole Porter-ish. I have heard Ordinary Couple and I think I prefer it to Something Good in a stage production. It is worth noting that several songs occur in different places in the stage and screen versions of this show, and their order affects the progress of the plot. For instance on stage “My Favorite Things” is sung by Maria and the Mother Abbess before she departs the Abbey for the Trapp family villa, serving much the same function as the song Confidence** which Rodgers composed for the film. Frankly, the song order in the film serves the plot considerably better.
Kitsch Sighting Report: No girls in white dresses with blue satin sashes, but brown paper packages tied up with strings made a brief appearance.
The Sound of Music, presented by C-R Productions, runs weekends through December 17 at the Cohoes Music Hall, 58 Remsen Street in Cohoes. Performances Friday & Saturday evenings at 8 p.m., Saturday & Sunday matinees at 3 p.m. The show runs two and a half hours with one intermission and is suitable for the whole family. Call the box office at 518-237-5858 for tickets and information.
* According to Maria in The Story of the Trapp Family Singers not only did the Captain turn down the offer of a high post in Hitler’s Navy and an opportunity for the family to sing at one of the Fuhrer’s birthday parties, but he declined to fly the Nazi flag because he “didn’t like the colors” and offered to hang his oriental rugs out the windows instead. Needless to say, the family found it prudent to leave Austria after the Nazi occupation.
** Both Confidence and Something Good were first inserted into a stage production of The Sound of Music for the 1981 London revival starring Petula Clark, who Maria von Trapp proclaimed "the best Maria ever." In a 1978 interview Maria said that while she liked Mary Martin (who originated the role of Maria on Broadway) and Julie Andrews, they “were too gentle-like girls out of Bryn Mawr."
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2006