Despite my lifelong love affair with Broadway, I have never seen a professional production of “The Sound of Music.” I had the record as a child so I know nearly every song by heart; and, along with legions of fans, I believe the iconic film is the greatest movie musical ever made.
Throw in the chance to see another Josh Rhodes production at Asolo Repertory Theatre and my anticipation for this season’s opening musical production was running high.
The opening scene was a bit reminiscent of 2017’s opening musical “Evita” with a dark stage lit with candles evoking a stark setting, as the nuns mystical voices fill the theatre.
The emergence of the glorious Maddie Shea Baldwin from below the stage singing “The Sound of Music” was truly a revelation. Baldwin makes her Asolo debut as Maria Rainer and has thus far only performed in one Broadway show Steve Martin’s “Bright Star” (coincidentally running concurrently at Florida Studio Theatre).
As those familiar with the story are well aware, Maria, a nun, is a bit of a renegade. The nuns are only permitted to sing hymnals. Maria loves to sing and has the voice of an angel so she was bound to have have difficulties fitting in at the Abbey as the other nuns so eloquently sing in the lament “Maria.”
The Rodgers and Hammerstein music is so melodic and catchy that the rules of theater etiquette, requiring that we not burst into song and dance through the aisles, were eminently challenging to follow and made me even more empathetic with Maria’s plight.
When Mother Abbess calls Maria into her office for a “talk,” we get to see what will ultimately make Maria such a wonderful governess. She brings out the lighter side of the Mother who longs to learn the song “My Favorite Things” that she overheard the younger nun singing to herself. We traditionally think of Mother Abbess as a very serious and somewhat impenetrable character. However, Liz McCartney brought so much nuance to the role. The Mother serves as both an inspiring mentor sending the wayward Maria on a journey to find her purpose and later as a caring “girlfriend” willing to listen and advise Maria on her love-life with her showstopper performance of “Climb Ev’ry Mountain.”
A reluctant Maria ventures to Captain Georg von Trapp’s home and realizes that the somewhat tyrannical father, played by Tally Sessions, is really just a softie who is mourning his late wife. He quickly evolves into a modern dad with coaxing from his caring and beautiful governess. She sees that he just needs a chance to sing again and an excuse to cuddle with his lovely brood of seven children.
Rhodes does an excellent job removing some of the sexism in “The Sound of Music” story, where the romance of employer/employee was inherently unequal. In the movie, Andrews and Christopher Plummer lacked any chemistry so their relationship always felt forced – covered over with gorgeous scenery and incomparable music. However, in the Asolo’s version it is clear very quickly when Georg and Maria share their love of music in an emotional reprise of “The Sound of Music” that the two are entirely smitten with one another. You can see the layers of hurt and pain stripped away from this kind man as he falls back in love with his family and with the woman who helps him find himself again. Sessions realistically portrays this speedy transformation.
The scenes with Max Detweiler and Baroness Elsa Schrader are less effective, because Georg is merely going through the motions with Elsa. Kate Loprest tries valiantly to make Elsa fascinating, and her role as a feminist entrepreneur is a welcome addition. However, the dialogue between Elsa and Georg is very stilted which makes any semblance of a relationship thoroughly unbelievable.
The seven children, helmed by a terrific Sophie Lee Morris as Liesl von Trapp, are endearing and lively. Their voices combine together beautifully, and it is little wonder that they enchant the talent scout Detweiler (Darren Matthias). Matthias plays Detweiler as more mercenary than music maven; but the von Trapp family singers are so enchanting that their inevitable stardom at the close of the show comes across as well earned.
Rhodes leans in heavily to the fact that the Nazis are eager to recruit von Trapp; and he must make an ethical stand to leave behind his beloved homeland and the life he built for his family. The von Trapps become political refugees who ultimately seek refuge in the United States.
The omnipresence of Nazi flags and stormtroopers make the production a bit less family-friendly for the youngest members of our community; and the political plot was not as pronounced in the film. However, Rhodes made an important artistic decision to reaffirm the timeless message that the essence of our humanity is that we each hold the ability to retain our integrity and values in the face of vast political pressure.
The powerful performances as well as the theme that the arts can help us overcome any obstacles make for a thought-provoking and thoroughly delightful production.