THE SOUND OF MUSIC
Music By Richard Rodgers
Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Book by Howard Lindsay & Russel Crouse
Based on the book The Story of the Trapp Family Singers by Maria von Trapp
Starring Billie Wildrick,Dieter Bierbrauer, Kersten Rodau, James Detmar, and Tammy Hensrud
Directed by Gary Briggle
Presented by Ordway Center for the Performing Arts
Here’s a question for you, theatre fans: How do you solve a problem like Maria?
Sometimes, familiarity can be a problem. And it’s a problem that is plaguing The Ordway’s production of The Sound of Music, which – for better and for worse – is staging a very faithful production of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II’s iconic final musical.
By now everyone knows the story of Maria Rainer (Billie Wildrick), the unruly novitiate at Nonnberg Abbey who is sent by the Mother Abbess (Tammy Hensrud) to serve as the governess for the widowed Captain Georg von Trapp (Dieter Bierbrauer) and his seven children. Of course music and eventually love ensues thanks to one of the most famous scores in all of American musical theatre history (the title song, “Do Re Mi,” “Sixteen Going On Seventeen,” “My Favorite Things,” “The Lonely Goatherd,” “Climb Ev’ry Mountain,” and more). Even when the Nazis arrive and the von Trapp family has to flee from Austria, we all know the story is going to be okay. And how do we know the story is going to be okay?
Because of this…
Any talk of The Sound of Music as a play for the stage gets obliterated in the audience’s minds because of Robert Wise’s beloved 1965 Oscar-winning film adaptation. And thanks to Wise’s sharp direction, Ernest Lehman’s taut screenplay, Ted McCord’s sumptuous cinematography that served as an idealized travelogue of Salzburg, and Julie Andrews’ spry take on Maria, this has become the standard by which we judge the show. (As an aside, while the role of Maria was created by Broadway legend Mary Martin and has been played to great success by such dynamic actresses as Florence Henderson, Nancy Dussault, Petula Clark, Rebecca Luker, and Laura Benanti, Ms. Andrews’ performance has become the standard for the role; as we all witnessed when poor Carrie Underwood tried to tackle the arrangements used for Ms. Andrews in the television version from two years ago.) Any modern production of The Sound of Music has to be able to stand on its own in the face of an iconic movie seared into the audience’s brains, and most productions since have incorporated bits of Mr. Lehman’s screenplay and the additional songs from the film (both “I Have Confidence” and “Something Good” were written solely by Richard Rodgers after Oscar Hammerstein died months after the show opened on Broadway in 1959).
The startling thing about the Ordway’s production is that director Gary Briggle has stuck to the script; for better and for worse. In this case, that means presenting Howard Lindasy and Russel Crouse’s original libretto without any alterations, and what surprised me was just how sharp and dramatic the original libretto actually is. That being said, Mr. Briggle’s background in opera meant that he takes the script very literally and stages it very traditionally, with the downside being a production that seemed to drag on when a fleeter hand could have been needed. There were times when a more dynamic stage picture was needed, but most of the time (in particular with the nuns) he just had them find their mark on stage and sing. There are times when he does ask his cast to push the action and it works; especially in the lovely staging for the Festival scene near the end of Act Two, where we could feel the unbearable situation the family is in. I just wished Mr. Briggle had pushed his cast to bring that level of intensity and commitment throughout the entire show.
This traditional take also hampered the production design as well. Kenneth Foy’s set for the von Trapp manor was stunning, but his use of a drop downstage to serve as the de facto wall of Nonnberg Abbey meant that the Mother Abbess and her nuns (Janet Hayes Trow, Susan Hofflander, and Dee Noah) were forced downstage and had no room to move around when they sang “How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria?”. Likewise Don Darnutzer’s lighting was moody and effective, but his projection work was a little questionable. By placing the projections from the front of the house instead of backstage, it meant that the actors blocked out parts of the projection; which was most noticeable in the garden scene as Liesl (Caroline Innerbichler) and Rolf (Mathtew Rubbelke) were dancing around during “Sixteen Going on Seventeen”. One area that was thankfully traditional was the orchestra, and hearing the score played by a full twenty-one piece band led by musical director Raymond Berg was absolutely thrilling.
As for the cast, on the night that I saw it, they took a while to warm up and really get into it. The nuns chorales feature some of the most gorgeous music Richard Rodgers ever wrote for the stage (and considering that he also wrote the scores to Oklahoma, Carousel, The King and I, and South Pacific -and those are just the shows he wrote with Hammerstein!- that’s saying something), but on the night that I saw the show, the nuns were a little lackluster in the opening chorales; a problem that thankfully rectified itself in the second act with a crisp reading of the “Confitemini Domino” during the wedding scene. Likewise, Ms. Wildrick took a little bit to warm up as Maria. By choosing to use the Andrews arrangement for the title song (which is a third higher from the original key), she tended to run out of air at the end of her phrases. And while I would have liked a little more conflict in truly wanting to be a part of the church, her chemistry with the children (during a spirited version of “Do Re Mi”) and with Captain von Trapp (and Ms. Wildrick’s natural on stage chemistry with Dieter Bierbrauer) was lovely to see. Speaking of Mr. Bierbrauer, he was a lovely von Trapp and had some great moments (especially his touching rendition of “Edelweiss” in Act Two), but the role’s vocal range lies a little lower than where his voice naturally sits, which resulted in some awkward harmonies, most noticeably in his duet with Maria “An Ordinary Couple” (which, to be fair, is an awkward song and one of the lesser songs in the R&H cannon – most productions often swap it out with “Something Good”). Meanwhile Tammy Hensrud was just okay as the Mother Abbess; while her voice is lovely it lacked the intensity to turn “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” into the thrilling Act One finale it needs to be. (Just as Julie Andrews has broken the mold for how Maria should be played, so too has Audra McDonald’s performance of the role of the Mother Abbess in The Sound of Music Live! set the bar for the role.)
As for the rest of the cast, Kersten Rodau brought charm, bitchiness, and her soaring voice to the role of Elsa; actually showing genuine hurt when she realized it was over with von Trapp and almost convincing me that “How Can Love Survive” is a good song. I wish James Detmar was a slightly better singer, because while his Max was hilarious and surprisingly touching during the festival scene, he needed a little more vocal firepower to keep up with Ms. Rodau and Mr. Bierbrauer in “No Way To Stop It”. Wendy Lehr and Tod Petersen were both luxury casting as Frau Schmidt and Franz (though, as Mr. Detmar’s standby, I would love to see Mr. Petersen’s take on Max and to hear him lock horns on “No Way To Stop It”). And I can not say enough good things about the kids, played by Ms. Innerbichler, Quinn Morrissey, Bella Blackshaw, Nate Turcotte, Natalie Tran, Josephine Turk, and Mabel Weismann; who not only sang beautifully and acted like a proper family, but also had great solo moments as well. Ms. Innerbichler latches onto Liesl’s painful youth that grows up quickly in the face of the events going on around her. Mr. Morrissey nailed Friedrich’s tricky high G in “So Long, Farewell.” And Ms. Tran once again upheld the tradition of Brigitta stealing the show with all the best comedic moments delivered with a glorious deadpan and an prodigious comedic instinct.
As it proved last year with the musical version of A Christmas Story, the Ordway can, and should, do a big holiday musical. And thanks to the resources they have at their disposal, they can get the best of the best in the region to work on their holiday shows. However, when last year’s show was a complete success, this year’s show was hampered not only by the audience knowing the show going in, but also by not trying to solve the problems inherent in such a well known show. Don’t get me wrong; this is not a disaster. It’s just a problem we got an okay production when we were hoping for a great one.
The Ordway’s production of The Sound of Music continues through January 3; with performances taking place on Tuesdays through Sundays at 7:30 pm, and Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2 pm. All performances take place at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts, located at 345 Washington Ave in St. Paul. Tickets are $37 – 111 and can be purchased on the Ordway’s site.
Photo Credits: Rich Ryan Photography
Video Credit: 20th Century Fox / R&H Theatricals