Balanced revival of `Sound of Music'

Review: The Lyric's production captures the sweetness of the story without downplaying the Nazi threat.

September 23, 1999|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

For a show about a family fleeing the Nazis, "The Sound of Music" has always seemed awfully saccharine -- a musical more likely to leave you queasy from too much spun sugar than quaking from fear of storm troopers.

At the Lyric Opera House, however, the splendid touring version of the 1998 Broadway revival strikes a more credible balance. Directed by Susan H. Schulman, this top-notch production shows the Rodgers-and-Hammerstein score and Lindsay-and-Crouse book off to advantage. It's a revival that will not only satisfy the musical's fans, but -- thanks to the charming children's roles -- is also an ideal way to introduce young people to musical theater.

The production's success is partly due to Heidi Ettinger's stunning set design and partly to the polished performances of a cast that includes many Broadway holdovers, chief among them Richard Chamberlain, his co-star Meg Tolin, and Jeanne Lehman as the Mother Abbess.

Although the lead role is that of Maria, the postulant who serves as governess for the seven children of an Austrian naval officer, Chamberlain's star status means he gets top billing. And Chamberlain delivers an unassailable performance as Captain Georg von Trapp.

From his ramrod bearing to his solid baritone, he embodies the autocratic widower, who runs his home like a battleship. "Hard to believe, Captain von Trapp -- you singing," a Nazi officer says to him at one point. Some may also find it hard to imagine Dr. Kildare singing, but Chamberlain -- who recorded a couple of albums early in his career -- sings with warmth and grace.

Only in the romantic scenes with Tolin, who is more than three decades Chamberlain's junior, does the casting seem a stretch -- even for a May-December romance. Though Tolin is a good bit older than the Maria she replaced on Broadway, the difference in the lovers' ages is accentuated by the youthful exuberance of Tolin's performance.

For example, in "My Favorite Things," director Schulman and choreographer Michael Lichtefeld have her jumping up and down on a bed with her young charges. Whenever this perky actress cavorts with the Captain's seven adorable children -- and these kids are melt-your-heart adorable -- her Maria seems more like a kid herself than an adult.

But cute as Maria's interaction with the children may be, this production doesn't downplay the Nazi threat -- and that threat was real; the musical's creators may have taken liberties, but they did start with a true story. If anything, the danger is enhanced by being seen in contrast with the family's halcyon Alpine existence. From the elaborate drop curtain to the painted arches framing the stage, designer Ettinger's set suggests a child's ornate snow globe.

When the von Trapp family gives the concert after which they hope to evade the Nazis, three giant Nazi flags form the backdrop. Seeing children performing in sweet Austrian folk costumes in front of three enormous swastikas is a chilling sight.

Nor is that the only effect this carefully detailed production gets right. The show opens with the nuns singing liturgical music in the abbey, and the choral work by this small choir sounds truly heavenly. Similarly, at the end of the first act, there is genuine inspirational fervor in the soaring operatic tones with which Lehman's Mother Abbess sings "Climb Ev'ry Mountain."

In addition to its many other attributes, this revival is also highly complete, featuring two songs written solely by Rodgers for the 1965 movie ("I Have Confidence" and "Something Good"), as well as two that were cut from the film ("How Can Love Survive?" and "No Way to Stop It").

Yet the show never lags. In fact, my only criticism regarding length has to do with the length of the Baltimore engagement. Just about the only thing wrong with this production is that it's only here until Sunday.

`Sound of Music'

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

When: 8 p.m. today through Saturday, 7: 30 p.m. Sunday, matinees at 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday

Tickets: $15-$62.50

Call: 410-481-7328

Pub Date: 9/23/99

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