Review by Dennis Kempton
Rodgers and Hammerstein’s final musical theatre collaboration, The Sound of Music, debuted in November 1959 as the stage story of the von Trapp family singers. It’s fair to say the “story” is inspired by the family, rather than a faithful retelling of actual events. Nevertheless, The Sound of Music ran on Broadway to tremendous success and closed in 1963 after nearly 1500 performances. The iconic movie, starring the equally iconic Julie Andrews is the entry point to the von Trapp story for most of us, but this gem of an inspiring romantic comedy tinged with danger is a mainstay, having been revived on the stage in 1981, 1989, and 2006.
The Duluth Playhouse, after last year’s holiday season production, White Christmas, had pretty large shoes to fill. And they called in a guest director, Anthony Nelson, to flesh out the beloved story where the bubbly, vivacious governess, Maria, fresh from the abbey, captures the hearts of a brood of children fathered by a taciturn former naval officer.
The role of Maria is played with pitch perfect warmth by professional actress Ali Littrell, in a stroke of genius casting choice by the director and the Playhouse. While I am usually skeptical of the casting of Equity performers in community theatre venues, this Chanhassen alum captivates the audience with her performance, especially vocally. What is initially remarkable is her connection to the music. Littrell’s first number on stage, “The Sound of Music” is delivered with a singular expression of longing innocence, which, importantly, sets up the relationship between Maria and the audience. Equally compelling in the opening scenes is the performance of “I Have Confidence.” But, where Littrell makes the biggest stage punch is in her relationship to the children cast in the von Trapp family. There isn’t a moment on stage where Littrell’s Maria isn’t believable as the governess with a genuine and abiding affection for her new, often cheeky, charges. The brilliance of her scene relationships with them through “Do-Re-Mi”–a rousing and successful introduction scene between the children and their new governess, to the comforting and playful “My Favorite Things,” Littrell imbues the entire first act of the musical with a graceful love, bordering on bewildered naivete that makes one smile and sink into the story. Her performance is nearly cinematic in its consistency.
Captain Georg von Trapp (Zachary Stofer) is a gruff widower who keeps track of his seven children and household servants with a whistle and a set of rules that would make any military outfit swell with pride. Stofer brings a vulnerability to the famous role that makes it authentically his and that’s a tough thing for an actor to do with something so familiar to audiences. His stage chemistry with Littrell is an evolution, as it should be, from imperious resignation about her “temporary” place with his children to the moments he confronts his own falling. Stofer’s relationship to the children on stage is also an important element in his performance success. The captain’s obvious affection comes through in Stofer’s delicate dances with his daughters and touching gestures such as tenderly kissing the cheek of Gretl. He also turns in an emotionally evocative vocal performance in the show’s second act with “Edelweiss” that threatens to shake up even the most emotionally unavailable person sitting in the house seats. As with Littrell, it is a difficult task to find flaws with Stofer’s overall presentation. His consistency, engagement, and relationship with the cast on stage shines in its emotional impact for the story.
Those familiar only with the film version of The Sound of Music will find added gems to the story that are akin to a sort-of “director’s cut” feel with the characters of the Baroness Elsa Schraeder (Carolyn LePine) and Max (Keith Shelbourn) adding their own vocal stamp to the familiar narrative. LePine’s performance is appropriately modest as she finds her way through the developing love story between the captain and the young governess. LePine accomplishes much through body movement and facial expression and also lends her laudable vocal chops to a couple of the show’s numbers, including a delightful rendition of “How Can Love Survive.” For Shelbourn, the role of Max is a demonstration of his usual character roles for which he has become noted for delivering with reliable aplomb. He shares musical numbers with LePine and Stofer that are serviceable for his character and his comic relief as a larger-than-life friend of Georg’s is a nice touch to the casting.
But, then, of course, there are the children. Much relies on their performances as the heart and soul of the love story unfolding around them. They are not mere scene dressing or devices in the storytelling for The Sound of Music. Ashley Effinger’s 16-going-on-17 Liesl is a stand-out performance, showing a delightful innocence burgeoning into young womanhood and searching for a mother to guide her way. In the second act, during the reprise of “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” the blocking of Effinger and Littrell on the set’s sofa is a particularly poignant moment where both actresses cultivate their own growing relationship. Liesl’s siblings, Freidrich (Noah Cornwell), Louisa (Kier Wahman Zimmerman), Kurt (Evan Giddings Ehrhardt), Brigitta (Lilia Fremling), Marta (Bailey Stender), and Gretl (Kennedy Johnson) are the heart of the story that bring the captain and Maria together, through music. From the opening moments, their lockstep precision in choreography to their charming vocal performances set up their own little powerhouse performance as an ensemble. They handle the choreography with dexterity and breathe a captivating familiarity and warmth to their individual characters. Notable are their singing scenes with Littrell, especially the tour-de-force “Do-re-mi” in the first act. This ensemble is a true credit to the success of the show.
With so much going right for the production, there were only a few missteps, including the sound system at the Playhouse which made some amplification problems apparent. This production deserves more, especially in handing the volume of Patricia Dorn, the mother abbess, during one of the show’s enduring anthems, “Climb Ev’ry Mountain.” And, while the costuming of the cast was pretty much flawless by Jean Olsen, Maria’s wedding dress, kind of prom dress meets Disney princess confection seemed a bit anachronistic when something more elegant and period appropriate would have made the wedding sequence a little more than a sort of awkward interlude.
The scenic design by Curtis Philips was versatile and visually stunning, involving very little in the need of scene changing, save props being set on his faux marble set doubling as interior and exterior for the von Trapp home and for the abbey, itself. The lighting of the show by Jim Eischen was especially effective throughout the show in creating moods, location, and time, though at times some of the actors seemed to step out of their light. The live orchestra, conducted by Blake Peterson, was a valuable asset to the storytelling and did not compete with any of the cast’s vocals.
The Sound of Music, as a holiday season choice for the Duluth Playhouse, is a fresh and wondrous retelling of the classic story, surpassing, in direction, and vocals, most of the Playhouse’s musical offerings. With the right mix of casting and vocal chops, and with a fresh directorial eye (much needed at the venue in this reviewer’s opinion) it becomes readily apparent that the full potential of the actors can be married to a story that is more than 50 years old with a degree of success that makes a heart soar and restores belief and affection for timeless messages of love, endurance, truth, and family in a time where traditional values are often portrayed as trite and out of step with modern times.
THE SOUND OF MUSIC. Music by Richard Rodgers. Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II. Book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse. Directed by Anthony Nelson for the Duluth Playhouse. WITH Beth Anderson, Laura Blackmon, Stephen Bock, Noah Cornwell, Jef Crosby, Patricia Dorn, Ashley Effinger, Evan Ehrhardt, Lilia Fremling, joe Haag, Kennedy Johnson, Carolyn LePine, Jana LaPine, Ali Littrell, Kyle McMillan, Mike Pederson, Tonya Porter, Keith Shelbourn, Michele Sorvick, Bailey Stender, Anne Stephen, Rick Stevens, Dani Stock, Zachary Stofer, Paul Waterman, Lorna West, Joe Westerberg, Sophie Williams, and Kier Wahman Zimmerman. Musical direction by Patrick Colvin and choreography by Elyse Snider. The production runs through December 18 at the Duluth Playhouse, 506 West Michigan Street, Duluth. Curtain time: 7:30 p.m. and 2 p.m. matinees. This review is based on the December 1 opening night performance.