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No Way to Stop It by Matthew Murray

  • SoM1.jpgWalking into Carnegie Hall on Tuesday evening for the one-night-only concert performance of The Sound of Music there, I was more than a little skeptical about what I was going to see. Though I'm a huge fan of both the 1959 musical itself and the work of the Richard Rodgers–Oscar Hammerstein II pairing in general, it was pretty much the last of their collaborations I expected to work in this format. (Well, okay, maybe Flower Drum Song struck me as slightly sillier.) After all, this is a relatively low-key show that focuses on tiny ensembles, has a septet of children, and hits the heights the musical-dramatic ecstasy only once (with "Climb Every Mountain" at the end of Act I). What could a presentation like this possibly do the material?

    As it turns out: nothing. And that was the best thing that could have happened. For, as rendered by director Gary Griffin, conductor Rob Fisher, and an excellent cast, the evening did nothing except let the material speak (and sing) for itself. And, as is the case with any good show, that was more than enough.

    Purist that I tend to be about these things, I'm not entirely sure that all the tweaks were necessary—even if I understood them. The stage show does not have an overture (it opens with the nuns' choral singing), and as much as I like the one put together for the film it has a very different character than is found in the Howard Lindsay–Russel Crouse book that David Ives adapted; still, it was wonderful hearing it played by the enormous Orchestra of St. Luke's. "I Have Confidence" is a confusing song that I've never been satisfied adds much to the character of Maria, the abbey postulant who's about to meet (and, against her better instincts, fall in love) with the Austrian Navy captain Georg von Trapp and his seven children. When it comes time for Maria and Georg to consummate their union in song, to my ear the admittedly imperfect "An Ordinary Couple" does the job better than the film's lighter-weight "Something Good" (which, like "I Have Confidence," features Rodgers's own lyrics). And I realize this is an unpopular and infrequently held opinion, but I think a spunkier, beltier take (à la the role's originator, Mary Martin) gives the character more room to grow in interesting ways that Julie Andrews's highly soprano-y, virtuous take in the movie—and, unsurprisingly, Laura Osnes took the latter road at Carnegie Hall.

    These are, however, minor nitpicks, even by my standards. For all intents and purposes, everything worked beautifully. Osnes, ultra-gorgeous and looking supremely elegant in a blue evening dress (which received a round of particularly cynical laughter from the audience when Maria said, speaking of giving her worldly clothes to the poor, "The poor didn't want this one"), was bright, personable, and sported a lovely personality that was just right for her softened version of the character. As Georg, Tony Goldwyn was appropriately stiff at the outset and melted nicely into the possibilities of romance that unfolded before him; he also sang surprisingly well. No surprises came from Patrick Page, who nailed the self-involved comedy of artistic bureaucrat Max; Veanne Cox, desert dry and uncommonly funny in the tiny role of the housekeeper, Frau Schmidt; or opera star Stephanie Blythe, who brought her gorgeously formed vocals to "Climb Every Mountain" and, to an even greater extent, "My Favorite Things."

    SoM2.jpgThat's right: It was sung, as it was intended to be, as a duet with Maria, leaving "The Lonely Goatherd" in its own proper spot in the bedroom during the storm. Those who are skeptical about the original version (including, it seems, most revival producers) should know that it works onstage exceedingly well, and doesn't need augmentation. Part of this is because it was intended as a serious, adult show, albeit one that contained plenty of family appeal. Brooke Shields drove this point home as Elsa Schraeder, the corporation president George is trying to romance, but can't because she's willing (and happy) to appease the Nazis—something that's antithetical to every fiber of his being. Though her voice was less robust than ideal for the role, she acted it persuasively, highlighting both her deep feelings for Georg and her protectiveness over what she's earned: She rose to the top under adverse circumstances and doesn't want to give up that power to anyone. Hers was a mature, sensible spin on a character who, unlike the one in the film, is hardly a garden-variety bad girl, and she let you see all the colors that constitute who Elsa is. Really, hers was the most complex and rewarding characterization of the night.

    Not that the music itself wasn't handled well, but what more is there to say about the score at this point? It's a classic, and deservedly so, and whether the placid title tune, the getting-to-know-you "Do-Re-Mi" octet for Maria and the children, "Sixteen Going on Seventeen" (sweetly performed by Mary Michael Patterson as Liesl and Nick Spangler as Rolf), or any of the others, the score works musically, theatrically, and without apology. The Women of the Mansfield University Concert Choir gave serious heft to the nuns' numbers, a good thing given how little chorus work there is in the show. And although Joshua Bergasse (best known currently for designing the dances on Smash) provided choreography that was sometimes a bit too reductive (most noticeable for me in a rather one-dimensional "The Lonely Goatherd" and a nonspecific "So Long, Farewell," it was always attractive and acceptable.

    Wendall K. Harrington designed the video and projections, which variously summoned up images of the lush Austrian countryside, the wonders of the von Trapp manse, the reverent interior of the Abbey, or the concert hall from which Maria, Georg, and the children launch their uncertain future. Nice as this scene-setting was, it was ultimately unnecessary: Though The Sound of Music, like all musicals, works best in a full production that respects all aspects of it, it's become such a part of our culture and our consciousness that such elements are not absolutely required for a concert that gets, as this one did, so very much else right.

    Photos by Chris Lee (top to bottom): Laura Osnes and the children; Patrick Page, Tony Goldwyn, and Brooke Shields.

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