Review: The Sound of Music by Zach Theater – Arts
Trevor Martin as Captain Georg von Trapp (left), Amanda Rivera as Maria (center), and the von Trapp family in Zach Theatre’s The sound of music (Photo by Suzanne Cordeiro)
Although The sound of music started out as a 1959 Broadway production that won five Tony Awards and ran for 1,443 performances, the now-iconic 1965 film version has pretty much ruined things for every subsequent production.
With stunning cinematography that captures the scenic landscapes of Salzburg and the Austrian Alps, searing orchestration and a brilliant cast – including the pitch-perfect Julie Andrews as Maria, the postulant of Nonnberg Abbey turned governess turned matriarch of the von Trapp family – the Oscar-winning film will forever be the go-to point of comparison for viewers. And so, it’s the source of great consternation for theaters performing Rodgers and Hammerstein’s latest and arguably most popular musical.
Numerous productions of other musicals from the stage to the big screen, such as the 2015 Broadway revival of The king and me, embracing the inevitable comparisons by mimicking key cinematic elements in their mise-en-scène. But Zach Theater director Dave Steakley decided to shake things up by taking a different, riskier direction that both downplays and modernizes the staging of this classic tale. This is sure to piss off die-hard moviegoers who see The sound of music as hallowed ground, but others will likely find this thought-provoking production adding a welcome new dimension to the story, despite some unfortunate distractions in the storytelling.
Stephanie Busing’s unique stage design consists of a backdrop – a huge tree against a muted painted hill backdrop – where Maria sits and sings the titular “The Sound of Music” to open the show. Other locations are established by the introduction of a piece of furniture or two, the drop of a window or a chandelier hanging from the rafters and the lighting design of Sarah EC Maines. Above the stage, on both sides of the shaft, are seats and desks for the orchestra. Downstairs towards the audience is a kind of festive biergarten where patrons can sit at tables, drink and, according to the director’s notes in the poster, be part of the “kind of shared audience experience that I was looking for”.
Those seated in conventional seats get a small glimpse of the interactivity as actors walk in or out of the aisles, but watching the festivities on stage and not being part of it makes for an eerie and sometimes disengaging theatrical experience. Additionally, the reduced performance space given to the actors frequently transforms Anna McGuire’s delightful choreography—best on display during “Do-Re-Mi”—into simple traffic control as performers navigate tables to play in the rest of the house. The 12-piece orchestra on stage (including musical director Allen Robertson on keyboard) consists mostly of star actors playing instruments and playing them well. Gone is the rich, saturated orchestration of the original work that uplifted its listeners, but now Hammerstein’s beautiful lyrics are liberated and brought to the fore.
The sound of music is set around Anschluss, Nazi Germany’s annexation of Austria in 1938. But in this production, there’s a modern sensibility established through Susan Branch Towne’s costumes, minor script tweaks, and the mannerisms and intonations of the performers. There is also a subtly staged allusion to the current rise of neo-Nazis and white supremacists in our country. Less subtle, and one of the aforementioned distractions, is the series’ deliberate casting of a non-Aryan variety for von Trapp’s seven very Austrian children – played the night I was there by Francene Bayola, Ryan Crosby, Maleah Roy, Oscar Lopez, Avital Cuevas, Madeline Yang and Juliet Todoroff – guest stray Max, played by Kenny Williams, and Maria, played by Amanda Rivera. It works, but it takes some getting used to.
Each adult performer comes with great acting chops and wonderful voice, with rather android performances done by the younger actors, except for Bayola as Liesl and Cuevas as Brigitta, who are authentic and always engaged. In fact, Bayola’s performance of “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” with a very endearing Tyler Hecht as Rolf Gruber is one of the highlights of the production.
Rivera brings a charming sassiness to Maria, who plays guitar and fiddle, which facilitates the story’s abrupt and incredulous transitions that make Captain Georg von Trapp (a particularly approachable Trevor Martin) and the von Trapp children fall. immediately in love with her.
The small ensemble of nuns – played by Katie Horner, Selene Klasner (who also plays Frau Schmidt) and Jill Blackwood (who also plays the captain’s fiancée, Baroness Schraeder) – produce angelic harmonies when not blowing the instruments . And Alexa Holland as Mother Abbess (who also plays Baroness Elberfeld and guitar) delivers an intriguing take on “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” that’s more sultry for a lounge singer than a soulful soprano.
This splendid but idiosyncratic retelling of a classic musical is not something one would necessarily expect or want. But now it will be the production that others will be compared to.
The Sound of Music by Zach Theater
The Topfer, 202 S. Lamar, 512/476-0541
Until July 24