National Tour Theater Review: THE SOUND OF MUSIC (Ahmanson Theatre)

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by Tony Frankel on October 1, 2015

in Theater-Los Angeles,Theater-Regional,Tours

VON TOURIST TRAPP

The original stage version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music was such a crowd pleaser that many are surprised to learn the 1959 Mary Martin vehicle received very mixed reviews. The umpteenth revival which opened last night as the onset of a national tour not only illuminates why this is so, but Jack O’Brian’s plasticized direction turns the mawkish, unashamedly sentimental show into a travesty.

01.TheSoundofMusic.KAndersonNo doubt, the musical itself has plenty of charm and attractive standards—rich in fresh melody and sentimentally dexterous lyrics—but it still reeks of the clichés seen in operetta, especially as concerns the principles. There are unfledged characters, situational implausibility, bouncy precocious tots, and a slew of songs that are either misplaced or should have been excised altogether.

Sadly, there are more major problems with this production than the number of von Trapp children, but I can accept a pared-down ensemble and bus-and-truck sets—after all, this will “tour North America for multiple seasons,” after the Ahmanson run, “playing multi-week and weeklong engagements.” What this hackneyed outing needs to succeed is authenticity, but that is in short supply. Thanks to a lack of vision and scandalously unmotivated direction, this safe bet was as exciting as watching a candle drip. Even the show poster exhibits Maria looking like a fifty-five-year-old embalmed in paraffin.

02.TheSoundofMusic.ABrownWhile pure sentimentalists may disagree, The Sound of Music remains hopelessly gushy and wonky on stage, its faults made even more apparent here (and wait until you see how stagnant and joyless the blocking is for the opening four numbers—I’ve seen better community theater productions).

It certainly makes the 1965 movie version that much more appreciated. Come on, a singing nun who brings love and music back into a house of discipline while triumphing over Nazis and the deaths of mothers? Brilliant screenwriter Ernest Lehman knew just what to cut-and-paste from Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse’s book and what to toss out. For example, the mischievous postulant Maria is sent from the Abbey by the Mother Abbess to be a governess for the seven children of a tyrannical, widowed Captain, who immediately departs his Salzburg estate to woo a Baroness. This way, Maria has a month to teach the rascals how to sing and harmonize as fine as the Vienna Boys’ Choir, bonding with the half-waifs as they traipse and prance through the old town and the Alpine peaks.

04.TheSoundofMusic.DoReMi

On the boards, however, no sooner does the plucky nun-to-be encounter the overly-disciplined progeny that she manages to turn them into an Austrian singing sensation in one song, “Do-Re-Mi.” As preposterous as this moment is, I have seen the famous tune become enchanting, exhilarating and rousing. But with the positively innocuous and indistinctive Kerstin Anderson as Maria (hardly the spit-fire the nuns at the Abbey make her out to be), Danny Medford’s cute, on-the-nose choreography, and seven children who are basically given personality on paper only—who cares how great they sound or if a bit of delight is aroused? Here, the taste of saccharine vanilla overwhelms the rich chocolate. The right amount of sugar makes your heart race; the wrong amount makes your teeth ache. This just tastes bland.

03.TheSoundofMusic.KAnderson.VonTrappKids

Different versions have either tried to distance themselves or be more like the movie. When the musical was originally revived, R&H Theatricals saw fit to add “I Have Confidence” and “Something Good” from the movie (“Confidence” is excised here), but someone should have tinkered with the placement of the songs. Audiences unfamiliar with the stage version should rightfully be jarred when the Mother Abbess sings “My Favorite Things” with Maria just before she ejects the “problem” postulant back into the real world, guitar case in hand (and 33-year-old Ashley Brown, with her strong and glorious but overmiked soprano, looks young enough to be kicked out by Maria). And instead of using her favorite things to calm the children during a thunderstorm, Maria and the fledgling crooners do a perfect rendition of “The Lonely Goatherd,” sans the puppet theatre.

05.TheSoundofMusic.BDavisKAndersonAnd for a national tour, are we to believe that these are the most unique actors to be found? As Elsa, the love interest of Captain Von Trapp, Teri Hansen isn’t wily, bitchy, lovely, comical, or vulnerable. Merwin Foard’s operetta-style vocals and pompous stiffness are apropos choices for the conniving leech and music promoter, Max, but he is far too serious. At least Ben Davis creates a multi-dimensional character, and I dare you not to get misty-eyed when the Captain bonds with his children in Act I, and later sings “Edelweiss” (the last song R&H wrote together).

The shockingly unfunny pre-show speech from the Mother Abbess truly set the context for this production; this is the show you bring your visiting family to so they can see Broadway’s original Mary Poppins (Ms. Brown) and take a photo of themselves in front of a Swiss Alps backdrop. How sad is the state of the industry that the Broadway National Tour has become: a machine pumping out the familiar in order to make money without even offering splendid productions (Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, The Phantom of the Opera, etc.). But McDonald’s will always be the #1 restaurant as long as we keep buying and, worse, swallowing American junk food.

06.TheSoundOfMusic.BDavis.Edelweiss

photos by Matthew Murphy

The Sound of Music
Grove Entertainment and Ted Chapin
Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave
ends on October 31, 2015 in Los Angeles
for tickets, call 213.972.4400 or CTG
tour continues into 2019
for dates, cities, and tickets, visit Sound of Music Tour

{ 4 comments }

Frank Simpson October 2, 2015 at 1:19 pm

I saw the very first preview performance of this production in Boise, ID, and the *only* criticism in this review I can agree with is that of the poster. I don’t think the artwork lives up to this amazing production.

I was brought up on The Sound of Music like, well pretty much everyone. I have seen many, many stage productions and have even performed in the show myself as Max Detweiller. After reading director Jack O’Brien’s thoughts and approach to the show I will admit to going to the show with just a shade of trepidation. I needn’t have worried. Mr O’Brien and his company have delivered the goods.

The show is spectacular in every regard, and I am so sorry for Mr. Frankel’s inability to experience these characters (yes, fully fleshed-out characters) in the same way that I did the night I saw it in Idaho.

History will surely prove this to be an inspired revival of a much-beloved classic. Have no fear. Buy your tickets now, and ENJOY The Sound of Music like you’ve never seen it before.

Erin Karl December 5, 2015 at 3:34 pm

Totally agree, Frank. We just saw this in Raleigh today, and my only complaint was that Maria was a little campy and awkward. The production itself was glorious.

Azi December 28, 2015 at 3:25 am

I saw the production at the Straz in Tampa, give it a TEN out of ten. I cannot emphasize enough how well-received it was by everyone with whom I spoke afterwards. The sets, acoustics, orchestra were all excellent. The omissions from the original (including “Ordinary Couple”) were well-thought-out. It has a long way to tour and it is a DON’T MISS!

Sheree Green February 4, 2016 at 9:47 am

I totally agree with the previous three folks who made the effort to offer comments. I thoroughly enjoyed every aspect of this production, it was wonderful, through and through! I was expecting to be disappointed, having seen the 1965 film version countless times and knowing that many things in the play would be necessarily different. But my fears were unfounded, and I can’t imagine having enjoyed it any more thoroughly. Enjoy the play!

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