Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The hills of Sumner are alive with The Sound of Music

The Sound of Music
August 13 – 28, 2011
ManeStage Theatre Company

by Michael Dresdner

All things considered, “The Sound of Music” at ManeStage has more to recommend it than mar it. In the face of weak acting and some awkward blocking, what saves it is the fact that it is a musical, and this production’s strength is definitely in its staged musical numbers.

“The Sound of Music,” for the five people left in North America who are not familiar with it, is the lavish Rogers and Hammerstein musical roman a clef featuring the Von Trapp family just before their escape from Austria in the face of the Nazi Anschluss of 1938. Mostly through song, Baron Von Trapp and his seven children quickly warm to a very musical ex-postulant turned governess. The well known play, later movie, boasts a slew of now famous show tunes, including “My Favorite Things,” “Do-Re-Mi,” “Sixteen Going on Seventeen,” “The Lonely Goatherd,” “Edelweiss,” “Climb Every Mountain” and the title number “The Sound of Music.”

ManeStage’s huge cast of over 40 performers, a sizeable pit orchestra and a large production team makes it impractical to call out all of them, but I will indulge in mentioning a few by way of some of the standout scenes. In general the cast shines when singing and dancing, especially in ensemble numbers. However, at least three characters, Maria, Mother Abbess and Liesl, all obviously trained vocalists, shine especially brightly in their various feature and solo songs.

The first gem of a number is “Maria,” sung by three nuns (Breanna Edwards, Shelleigh-Mairi Ferguson, Amy Onstot) and the vocally impressive Mother Abbess (Lindsay Delmarter). The simple but realistic blocking and four well blended voices is beautiful, the first of more well executed numbers to come.

Lindsay Hovey sings the lead character Maria with consistent power, clarity and beauty, and manages to impressively carry a heavy load of simultaneous singing and choreography. She does a fine job throughout the play. 

Equally impressive is Brittney Stout, as Liesl, in all her numbers. Her song and dance to “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” paired with an excellent Rolf (Bryce Smith) is arguably the best number in the show. Their singing, dancing and chemistry are just about perfect.  

Her siblings are no slouch either; the rest of the Von Trapp children (Hunter Roy, Anna Wulfekuhle, Seth Remington, Maggie Barry, Montserrat Fleck, and Abigale Schwendeman as tiny Gretl) fill out an impressive ensemble. In their first major number they blend complicated choreography with beautifully meshed singing in “Do-Re-Mi,” then do it again in “So Long, Farewell.” It’s an outstanding ensemble even without considering that most of these fine performers are children. 

This is a true musical in that it is largely a series of staged numbers with very little straight acting in between. That’s a good thing, because frankly, the acting outside of the musical numbers was weak across the board, even among the leads. Leisl was a possible exception and was better than most, but to be honest, the best straight-out acting came from Kori Smith in an exceptionally short but delightful turn as the giddy, exuberant second-place winner of the folk festival.

Clearly, the musical director (Jennifer Garretson) and choreographer (Brenda S. Henson) deserve kudos for their work. Add to that spot on costumes (Judy Brooks, Joelle Collings, Jodi Josephson), very well executed and inventive sets (Delaney Knottnerus, Darlene Limanni), and perfectly appropriate lighting (Bethany Larson) and you have a show with decidedly strong production values. This is no small achievement for a relatively new theatre just wrapping up its fourth season and still using a borrowed space, the Sumner High School auditorium. 

My one large misgiving is somewhat personal. Everyone who spoke or sang was equipped with a microphone. As a theatre purist, I find sounds coming from a speaker instead of directly from the actors themselves a distancing phenomenon that diminishes the value of live theatre. I understand how hard it is to project while singing and dancing in an auditorium that large, but it would have made a more intimate and, in my mind, a better experience.

In spite of its length, about two and a half hours, a series of well crafted musical numbers coupled with good pacing and high energy made this a largely pleasant evening of musical theatre. If you are a “Sound of Music” fan, it’s worth your while to go.

Trivia bonus: In the movie version, it is implied that Edelweiss is a traditional Austrian anthem when it was in fact written specifically for this musical.

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