“The Sound of Music” – wafting through the Ahmanson
Like a volley of javelins, the catchy show tunes–“The Sound of Music,” “Maria,” “My Favorite Things,” “Do-Re-Mi”–fly from the stage, and the steely-eyed critic is quickly disarmed. “The Sound of Music,” one of several musicals in that impressive hit parade by Rodgers and Hammerstein, is a bittersweet melodrama that touches every heart and climbs ev’ry mountain.
The current production at the Ahmanson Theatre (through Oct. 31), given a little dusting out by director Jack O’Brien, is seamless and slick, an engaging pleasure cruise.
The story is set in the Austrian alps near the Swiss border in 1938, leading up to and edging into the Anschluss between Germany and Austria. Like a sheet of satin over a bed of sandpaper, the impending rise and fury of National Socialism is reminiscent of “Cabaret,” where some characters embrace the changes, some resist them, and others, the majority, as always, merely trust in their gods that they can ride out the storm.
But we begin far, far away from all that. Maria Rainer (Kerstin Anderson) is a postulant at Nonnberg Abbey in Salzburg, but the Mother Abbess (Ashley Brown, she of “Mary Poppins” fame) is observant enough to realize that Maria is not ready to renounce the mundane world that the rest of us live in, for better or worse, and to cloister herself away from it forever.
Not that we ourselves didn’t notice this right from the get-go. Maria is an exuberant songbird, innocence and wholesomeness personified. Anderson conveys all of this and more, although she’s a bit generic, too, which may be partly due to her youth and inexperience and partly due to the nature of the role. On the other hand, Merwin Foard, who plays the impresario Max Detweiler, is more intriguing and, ironically, a deeper character, despite the subtle hint of villainy. That is, he’s like a jolly uncle who seems to be concealing something, a secret not entirely moral though not necessarily bad.
And so the Mother Abbess assigns Maria to become the governess of seven underage children belonging to the widowed Captain Georg von Trapp, a decorated naval officer. The way he has his children dressed (five girls, two boys) in uniforms, and the manner in which he blows a whistle whenever he summons them or the household servants, might have us wondering if his wife either abandoned ship or jumped overboard. He’s a stern taskmaster, no doubt about it, but there’s a chink in every armor, especially in a Rodgers and Hammerstein fable.
The Captain is played by Ben Davis, who is faintly reminiscent of Bradley Cooper, which certainly isn’t a drawback.
Naturally, the kids don’t take kindly to having another governess, for Maria isn’t the first, just as Mary Poppins wasn’t the first for the Banks family. But whereas Mary Poppins is always a little savvy and something of a trickster, Maria is closer to Cinderella, a young girl who has a phenomenal capacity for patience without sacrificing her cheerfulness.
With scarcely a blink, Maria isn’t discouraged by the initial obstacles, and she quickly wins the affection of the Von Trapp children, even the “Sixteen Going On Seventeen” Liesl (Paige Silvester), who is feeling the tug of her “spring awakening” as she dawdles with messenger boy Rolf Gruber (Dan Tracy). Without really making it obvious, O’Brien has edged the incipient sexuality a little more into the foreground. In a way, this scene between Liesl and Rolf, which has a whiff of the ominous, foreshadows the larger dilemma of Austria being subsumed by Germany.
Reviewers with nothing better to do like to point out the subtle and often inconsequential differences between stage (1959) and film (1965) versions of the same work, and anyone who’s watched Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer in “The Sound of Music” can fill out their own scorecard.
To continue, as in any musical worth it’s salt there are bumps and reversals along the way, and while it’s clear that there’s a spark, umm, now a flame, between Maria and the Captain (one that both of them feel they have to squelch), we have our subplots with the monied Elsa Schraeder (Teri Hansen), as the woman the captain seems all set to marry, and the aforementioned Max Detweiler who hopes to play both sides of the coin.
The captain, of course, is an honorable man, the only kind of man deserving of our radiant Maria. As the show closes we feel the sense of urgency, those glowing red banners with their loud swastikas can send no other message, and the show becomes a heart-thumping thriller. But up there, just over the mountain, is neutral Switzerland. Will they make it out in time?
The sets are luminous, from the outside of the abbey to the mountainside where Maria sits and is first heard singing, to the airy, spacious Von Trapp home. The acting and the singing, and this includes the youngest cast members, is commendable throughout. Like it or not, this classic of musical theater could hardly be presented in a more agreeable light.
The Sound of Music is onstage through October 31 at the Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown Los Angeles in the Music Center. Performances, Tuesday through Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 1 and 6:30 p.m. Exceptions: There isn’t an 8 p.m. show on Wednesday, Oct. 14, but a 2 p.m. show has been added for Thursday, Oct. 29. Tickets, $25 to $150, available at the box office, by calling (213) 972-4400, or by going online to CenterTheatreGroup.org. ER