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Touring 'Sound of Music' hits the Kennedy Center

Charlotte Maltby as “Maria Rainer” and the von Trapp children, showing "Do-mi-sol" (photo by Matthew Murphy)

When opera subscribers complain to me about Washington National Opera, led down the Glimmerglass path, wasting some of its meager budget on producing a musical (Show Boat, Lost in the Stars, and the ill-advised trend continues next year with Candide), it is not pearl-clutching. Many opera fans like musicals just fine, but there is no need for the city's major opera company to mount them. Almost all of the major theaters in Washington produce an astounding number of musicals already, including the Kennedy Center itself. The complaint is only about a waste of resources on something that is already a glut in the performing arts market. We would not expect any of those theater companies to mount an opera, and their subscribers would be understandably upset if they did.

Among the best of what Broadway has produced is The Sound of Music, from 1959, the last collaboration between composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein, who died months after its premiere. America's leading musical theater duo were at the height of their powers, and it is good to be reminded that the stage version is more effective in many ways than the memorable film version, starring Julie Andrews, released in 1965. This production directed by Jack O'Brien, now at the Kennedy Center Opera House, has been touring North America for a couple years, and it is a charming staging that hits all the right emotional marks. It is sadly stripped down musically, with only fourteen live musicians in the pit, including only four string players, augmented by sounds from two synthesizers (orchestration by Robert Russell Bennett). The sound of this rather glorious score is, as a result, sometimes canned and pathetic, especially at the big climactic moments. As most people's ears have become so accustomed to such sub-par digital sound, it will likely not matter.

Charlotte Maltby is an irrepressible bundle of energy as Maria, tall and gangling and lovably awkward, and she has a pretty voice, all the way up to some high notes, that works well over the amplification. Understudy Cáitlín Burke stood in for Melody Betts as Mother Abbess, with sturdy results in the big Act I closer "Climb Ev'ry Mountain," but vocally the highlight of the cast was the sweet, laser-precise voice of Paige Silvester's Liesl, sparkling and effervescent as the eldest von Trapp daughter. The other six children who play the von Trapp singers -- Elliot Weaver (Friedrich), Stephanie di Fiore (Louisa), James Bernard (Kurt), Dakota Riley Quackenbush (Brigitta), Taylor Coleman (Marta), and Anika Lore Hatch (Gretl) --
form an excellent ensemble. Kudos to this production for having Maria teach the children their solfege ("Do-re-mi") with the hand signs advocated by Zoltán Kodály (see photo above). Musicians approve.

Other Reviews:

Kristen Page-Kirby, ‘Sound of Music’ fans: You think you know Elsa? You don’t. (Washington Post, June 15)

Nelson Pressley, Touring ‘Sound of Music’ is as fundamental as do-re-mi (Washington Post, June 16)
Nicholas Rodriguez made a dramatically strong Georg von Trapp, but with some vocal limitations this evening, mostly at the top of the role's range. The best musical moments came in the extraordinary ensemble writing for the nuns, who open the show chanting Psalm 109 ("Dixit dominus"), the first psalm of most Vespers services, to the eighth Gregorian tone. Rodgers wrote some beautiful choral pieces for the nuns to sing, and the ensemble here performs it all quite well. O'Brien has restored the two numbers cut from the film version, "How Can Love Survive?" and "There's No Way To Stop It," which give greater depth to the characters of concert promoter Max Detweiler (a cynical Merwin Foard) and wealthy widow Elsa Schraeder (a world-weary Teri Hansen). The order of songs from the Broadway version is also restored, so that Mother Abbess and Maria sing "My Favorite Things" near the start of Act I, and Maria sings "The Lonely Goatherd" to comfort the children during the storm.

The production also returns to the charming original dialogue (book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse), and the production is largely quite traditional. Set pieces fly in to create various rooms in the Abbey, as well as the main room, governess's room, and porch of the von Trapp home (designed by Douglas W. Schmidt). It is by intention a production for nostalgists, also providing a fine introduction to this classic musical for young people. I often long for the occasional opera production that would be completely true to the composer's original intentions. After all, I have yet to experience many of the great operas, none more regrettably than Wagner's Ring Cycle, in the way that the composers envisioned in their original productions. Not that every production would have to do that, but it would be nice at least once. On the other hand, it might be quite entertaining to see what Calixto Bieito or David Alden would make of Hello, Dolly.

The Sound of Music runs through July 16, in the Kennedy Center Opera House.

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