Singing nuns, kids best parts of this `Sound of Music'

THEATER

Musical by Rodgers, Hammerstein played with a light touch at Cockpit in Court

Theater Column

August 04, 2005|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Rodgers and Hammerstein's The Sound of Music isn't just a musical about singing nuns. It's also a musical about a brave Austrian family fleeing the Nazis. The show as a whole, however, is usually sugar-coated, and director Roy Hammond's production at Cockpit in Court adheres to the standard prettified approach.

Granted, under Michael Bareham's musical direction, Cockpit's nuns - and especially lead actress Julia Lancione - sing so magnificently, they'd be an asset to any church choir. The opening scene of a tableau of nuns singing their morning hymn a cappella gives an immediate visual and aural sense of spirituality and serenity.

When the scene shifts to a hillside where Lancione, in the role of postulant Maria, extols her love of her surroundings, her restless enthusiasm makes it clear that this is a young woman who would find a convent's walls too confining.

And when Maria is sent off to serve as governess for the seven children of a widowed naval captain, Lancione lets us see the noble efforts her character makes to screw up her courage in "I Have Confidence."

The portrayals of those children are every bit as charming as they should be - from Alison Cressey Trumbull as eldest sibling, Liesel (a role that Trumbull, recovering from a recent car accident, valiantly plays on a crutch), down to diminutive Mandy Bilger as little Gretl.

Unfortunately, there's little chemistry between Lancione's Maria and Michael P. Sullivan's Captain von Trapp, and his singing doesn't approach the level of his largely accomplished fellow cast members.

There are other noteworthy performances, however, especially those of Kate Briante, who brings a crystal clear, near-operatic voice to the role of the captain's fiancee, and Briante's real-life husband, Christopher, who offers a stylish take on the comic-relief role of Max, the cultural minister who launches the von Trapp family's musical career, over the captain's protests.

Much of The Sound of Music's sweetness stems from the libretto by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, who took a number of liberties in their adaptation of the true story of the Trapp Family Singers.

Like the 1998 Broadway revival, Cockpit includes two songs cut from the 1965 movie ("How Can Love Survive" and "No Way to Stop It"). Unlike that revival, this production doesn't attempt to plumb the plot's underlying darkness, but it is an enjoyable rendition of one of the most popular family musicals in the American canon.

Show times at Cockpit, on the Essex campus of the Community College of Baltimore County, 7201 Rossville Blvd., are 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $15 and $17. Call 410-780-6369.

A wonderful set

There have been a spate of new antiwar plays of late, but Theatre on the Hill, the summer theater in residence at McDaniel College, has traveled back to 1970 for its contribution to this sub-genre.

Kurt Vonnegut Jr.'s Happy Birthday, Wanda June parodies cliched notions of warrior heroes - and, by extension, the society that glorifies them.

The plot, which has extremely loose ties to Homer's Odyssey, concerns a housewife named Penelope (Karen Paone), whose mercenary soldier husband, Harold (Brian K. Irons), disappeared eight years ago. When Harold finally returns home, he finds his wife being courted by a peacenik doctor (Mark J. Poremba) and a vacuum cleaner salesman (Chris M. DeRose).

The title refers to a cake that the salesman buys for Harold's birthday - a cake that happens to have the wrong inscription. Wanda June (Caitlyn James) does make a couple of appearances, however.

Killed when she was hit by an ice cream truck, the little girl is now happily playing shuffleboard in heaven with a Nazi (Bob Garman). Vonnegut's fantastical imagination almost takes flight in off-the-wall moments like this.

But for the most part, this is a script that tries too hard - a fault director David Norman accentuates by having his cast punch up the comedy to the point of overacting, or in some cases, mugging. Only Irons - portraying Harold as an insufferable blowhard as well as a male chauvinist bully - manages to make this exaggerated style work.

What Irons has, and the others lack, is conviction. It's an essential trait in even the most outrageous comedy, but in this production, there's more conviction in designer Ira Domser's set than there is in the acting. That set, by the way, is a beaut - from the cage-like contraption that encloses the entrance to Penelope's bedroom to Harold's animal-head trophies, mounted on the living room wall.

Happy Birthday, Wanda June is performed in the Studio Theatre in McDaniel College's Alumni Hall, 2 College Hill, Westminster. Show times are 7:30 p.m. today and Aug. 10 and 11. Tickets are $12. Call 410-857-2448.

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