Originally published on Talkin’ Broadway.
When I was in high school, my drama teacher absolutely refused to even consider mounting a production of The Sound of Music, claiming that once the movie was made, it was pointless to do the show without the actual Alps in the background, not to mention the unfairness of asking a young actress to compete with the indelible image of Julie Andrews. And surely, approaching a production of The Sound of Music in an age when two generations have been brought up on the classic film must leave many directors asking themselves, “How do you solve a problem like Maria?” Happily, director Jane Staab at the Wheelock Family Theatre has found the answer in the person of Angela Williams, a Maria so effervescent that by the time the Von Trapp children are introduced, you’ll be saying “Julie Who?”
While both the Boston press and the Talkin’ Broadway chatterati have said much about Maria being played by an African-American woman – even the one-paragraph publicity blurb makes sure to describe Williams as a gospel singer – you will forget it ever mattered once Williams bursts through the doors of the theatre to sing the timeless title song. Fear not – she sings the score with a perfectly appropriate Broadway style, not a single gospel inflection in evidence. But what a voice she has! And what charm! Williams is the real thing, an actress who makes Maria believable without becoming syrupy, a singer who handles the ballads and up-tempos equally as well, and most importantly, a real star presence who nonetheless allows the rest of the ensemble to shine.
Boston-area favorite Leigh Barrett is a perfect Mother Abbess, balancing gravity with a sense of playfulness that makes her an ideal mentor for Maria. And she sings the heck out of “Climb Ev’ry Mountain,” revealing a tremendous legit soprano voice I had no idea she possessed. The children are uniformly wonderful without ever being uniform. Each brings a distinct characterization to his or her role, and they never slip into “cute” when it would be inappropriate. Andrea C. Ross, as eldest daughter Liesl, is particularly outstanding as the youngster negotiating her transition from childhood to womanhood, one moment ably flirting with her sweetheart Rolf (Jacob Liberman), the next falling under Maria’s spell practically against her will during “The Lonely Goatherd” number.
This production follows the original Broadway script – forgoing the rewrites of the 1998 revival that brought the show closer to the film version – which means the characters of Max and Elsa (Brian Richard Robinson and Eileen Nugent) have a larger role, and Captain Von Trapp (Christopher Chew) is seen not only as a father, but also as an Austrian patriot. This is good news and bad for the production. While the two Max/Elsa songs jettisoned from the film have catchy melodies (helped along by an excellent orchestra under the direction of Jonathan Goldberg), the jokes of “How Can Love Survive?” have not aged quite as well, and the political discussions that culminate in “No Way to Stop It” seem rather simplistic. That said, Christopher Chew presents a much softer father than the script might have you believe he is, so the scenes of him railing against the Nazis provide a peek into how terrifying he might be when the audience isn’t around. Nugent’s Elsa is so likable that you almost want her and the captain to try to work things out when they realize their politics don’t mesh. Robinson’s portrayal of Max as a flamboyant impresario is a little over the top for my taste, but it’s easy to see why the children love this funny “uncle” of theirs.
The show is played against an impressionistic set designed by Janie E. Howland, providing just enough of a sketch of the settings in front of those ever-present mountains to keep the location clear. All of the scenes that were originally played in front of a show curtain have been moved into the divide between the front and back sections of the theatre seats, a practice that was somewhat annoying for the front half of the audience who had to crane their necks around on more than one occasion for entire numbers, but very much appreciated by the children sitting behind the divide. The lighting, by Nicole Pearce, paints beautiful colors on the stage, but falters somewhat when characters find themselves in the aisles between the stage and the secondary playing space in the house. Marian Piro’s costumes beautifully reflect the mood of the show, becoming more colorful as the Von Trapp family falls further under Maria’s good influence (and as Maria falls under theirs).
The Sound of Music is a special show, if only thanks to its place in the American pop-culture canon. But this production is made even more special by the Wheelock Family Theatre’s commitment to accessibility, which they express in many ways. All performances are open captioned and wheelchair accessible, with sound enhancement devices available. There are also performances offered with ASL interpretation, as well as audio description for the blind. Additionally, study guides are available by request – they’ll even mail one to your home so you can prepare your children for the experience in advance of the performance. The theatre is committed to making their shows economically accessible as well, offering not only a range of ticket prices, but also special reductions for low-income groups, plus their student matinee series designed to bring low-income youth to the theatre. The theatre has also made a commitment to non-traditional casting, which their website proudly notes “is a feature of all productions as a reflection of our audiences and society at large.”
Of course, because the show is marketed to families, you should come prepared to be part of an audience that will naturally feature some quiet explanations, occasional fidgeting, and more than the occasional scamper of feet back and forth to the restroom. But in a room full of theatre-lovers of all generations, some newly-minted, these atmospheric additions are music to my ears, at least. Because, whatever noises came from the audience, there was never a single note of displeasure. And the sound of children, parents, and grandparents all enjoying top-notch musical theatre together is truly the sound of music to my ears.
The Sound of Music runs now through February 27th at the Wheelock Family Theatre, 200 The Riverway in Boston. Performances are Friday nights at 7:30 pm, Saturday and Sunday matinees at 3:00 pm. Additionally, there are school vacation week matinees February 22 – 25 at 1:00 pm. Tickets range from $12 to $20. To purchase tickets, click here. You may also contact the Box Office at 617-879-2300 or contact email@example.com. The theatre also has a special TTY number for the Deaf: 617-879-2150. Discounts are available to members of Theatermania’s Insider Club and groups.
The Wheelock Family Theatre’s 24th season concludes with The Beanstalk, The Giant, and Jack, April 8 to May 8, 2005.
Be sure to check the current schedule for theatre in the Boston area.
Photo: Kippy Goldfarb