This 'Sound of Music' would barely keep the hills alive

December 02, 1993|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Theater Critic

Beginning with its debut 34 years ago, "The Sound of Music" has relied on two main elements. Originally created as a vehicle for Mary Martin, the show depends on a star -- or an actress of star quality -- in the leadrole of Maria, the postulant who serves as governess for the seven children of a strict widower, whom she eventually marries.

The production that has launched a national tour at the Lyric Opera House stars Marie Osmond, who acquits herself adequately, if not quite admirably. She's good at conveying a tomboyish air, and she brings spunk to such songs as "Do Re Mi," "The Lonely Goatherd" and "So Long, Farewell," which Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein 2d imbued with a folk-song flavor.

But in Osmond's case, the conviction that attracted Maria to the religious life seems more theatrical than spiritual -- not unlike the stiff, styled wave of her blond wig that peeks out from her postulant's wimple.

Granted, Maria never does adapt to the ways of the convent, but her piety presumably remains strong, and from the show's opening moments, when she sings, "The hills are alive with the sound of music," her singing should feel almost like worship. Osmond sings clearly, even sweetly, but not with what could be described as stirring, religious fervor.

And, that brings up the show's second necessary element, which is, simply, the sound of "The Sound of Music." This is a musical in whichtwo-thirds of the songs have become standards. While Osmond may be able to get away with merely doing them justice, her co-star, Keir Dullea, in his musical theater debut, falls so far below that level that in the end, when the Nazis are just outside and he is supposed to be singing for his life, he probably wouldn't have a prayer.

The fairest comment that can be made about Dullea is that he is miscast, not only vocally, but in terms of character. In this musical based on the real-life story of the Austrian von Trapp family, Dullea plays the father, a naval captain who runs his household like a ship, dressing his children in uniform and training them to respond when he blows a whistle. Dullea's Captain, however, is less autocratic than his housekeeper (Elizabeth Owens); even his whistle-blowing sounds tentative.

Under the direction of the lyricist's son, James Hammerstein, the production does feature a number of fine performances, particularly those of John Tillotson as Max, the jolly, charming, but politically incorrect cultural minister; Jane Seaman as the captain's grande-dame of a fiancee; and the adorable actors who play the seven little von Trapps.

And there is some stirring singing. As the Mother Abbess, Claudia Cummings' operatic voice soars heavenward in "Climb Ev'ry Mountain." And her choir of nuns supplies almost enough religious passion to compensate for the lack of romantic passion between Dullea and Osmond.

"The Sound of Music" is generally identified simply as a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, although the script is by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, who filled it with so much sweetness that many productions -- and especially the 1965 movie starring Julie Andrews -- reach tooth-decaying proportions. This latest revival isn't excessively sweet -- it's excessively bland, and that may actually be worse.

THEATER REVIEW

What: 'The Sound of Music'

Where: Lyric Opera House, 140 W. Mount Royal Ave.

When: 8 tonight through Saturday; 7:30 p.m. Sunday; 2 p.m. matinees Saturday and Sunday

Tickets: $20-$42.50

Call (410) 889-3911

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