I arrived at Chichester Festival Theatre with a lot of prejudice against The Sound Of Music. I’ve never liked nuns (don’t ask), the use of children is so often manipulative, the story is sweeter than aspartame, and the plot is flimsy to nonexistent. And yet Adam Penford‘s production conquered me as surely as Maria wins over Captain Von Trapp.
You’ve almost certainly seen the film version of The Sound Of Music. You’ve definitely heard some of the songs because the soundtrack was the UK’s second best selling album of the 1960s (only Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band outsold it) and it’s still the third best selling soundtrack album of all time. So, even though it came first, the stage show is overshadowed by its screen offspring.
Not that there’s a problem with Maria. Gina Beck brings out all her inner Julie Andrews and more besides to give us a joyful but conflicted character torn between her wish to serve God and her love of the secular world. Her voice is terrific. As is that of Janis Kelly who plays the Mother Abbess. It’s an inspired idea to have an opera singer in this role, giving the part an added authority, and a striking contrast between her maturity and Maria’s youth, when they duet on My Favorite Things. She sends us out of the auditorium at the end of both acts with a rendition of Climb Ev’ry Mountain that is spine tingling.
No matter how saccharine you think the film is, the stage musical is sweeter. If there were ever any sharp edges to any of the characters, they’ve been well and truly sandpapered. The plot verges on the invisible: there’s a romance with the smallest of bumps in the road to marriage, and a slight touch of peril at the end. (At least the film increases the peril.)
Just to remind you, a novice nun goes to help a widower bring up his children, he is buttoned up, she is open in her emotions, he relaxes, they fall in love. In the background, there’s a battle between good and evil as the Nazis from Germany take over Austria and the von Trapps are forced to flee. Although, when I say ‘evil’, the Nazis’ main fault seems to be bad manners.
Then there’s what we sometimes refer to as the attitudes of the time it was written, in this case 1958 when a woman is encouraged to follow every rainbow till she finds her dream, provided her dream is to find a man who will protect her and whom she can look after.
But none of this matters, because we have the gift of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s songs. There have been some recent productions of their musicals where a modern eye has been cast over their perceived shortcomings, but here director Adam Penford has decided not to mess with this classic, and simply let those songs speak from the hearts of their creators to the hearts of the audience.
While The Sound Of Music can seem like a massive step backward from the ground-breaking Oklahoma! which launched their partnership, not to mention South Pacific, Carousel and The King And I. I mean, where is the grittiness, where are the challenges to our thoughts and feelings, where is the driving narrative? But in some ways, it is more modern than its predecessors in that the plot is treated as an excuse to show off a concept about the power of song. Song is the driving force for good in the musical: the hills are alive with it, and it’s the pure emotion of the songs, rather than a narrative, through which characters are explored and developed.
From the title song, to Maria (as in How do we solve a problem like), to My Favorite Things, Do-Re-Mi, Sixteen Going On Seventeen, The Lonely Goatherd, So Long Farewell, Edelweiss and Climb Ev’ry Mountain, the songs provide a lasso that captures your heart, so that what your head thinks really doesn’t matter.
Not that the songs are entirely beyond criticism- I can’t knock Richard Rodgers’ music but Oscar Hammerstein’s lyrics can grate a bit at times. It’s a shame the soaring power of Climb Ev’ry Mountain is slightly undermined by the greetings card lyrics:
A dream that will need, All the love you can give
Every day of your life, For as long as you live.
Then again, he wrote: How do you keep a wave upon the sand? How do you hold a moonbeam in your hand? And of course: Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens, Bright copper kettles and warm woollen mittens, which may sound like a random search for videos on YouTube but work perfectly.
Indeed, the greatest strengths of this production are to do with the sound of the music: the exceptional quality of singing of all the cast, the stirring orchestral adaptations by Larry Blank and Mark Cumberland, and the vigorous orchestra under Matt Samer.
In contrast to the film, some of the key characters are much less interesting in the original stage version. Maria’s love rival Elsa is very nice and that’s about it. even though she is given a vivacious portrayal in this production by Emma Williams. In fact, this is the one aspect of the original stage musical with which Adam Penford appears to have messed. In both the stage and film versions, Elsa is a ‘wealthy socialite’ or, to put it another way, a member if the idle rich. Here she is described as the CEO of a large corporation which, and if I’m wrong I apologise, appears to be an addition to the dialogue. It may be an attempt to acknowledge to a modern audience that marriage and motherhood are not the only choices available to women. However, since she is the rival of our heroic singing housewife Maria, there is a risk that, far from being admired, Elsa may be disparaged for being a career woman.
The character of Captain Georg von Trapp has none of the depth of Christopher Plummer’s movie version. Likeable as his portrayal is, Edward Harrison simply doesn’t have enough to work with. Ako Mitchell impresses as his warm, humorous but ultimately spineless friend Herr Detweiler.
And of course, dammit, along with whiskers on kittens and warm woollen mittens, there are the children. Much as you know you’re being manipulated, it’s hard for your resistance not to crumble when the children are as good as this. Let’s not count the almost adult Liesl, who is beautifully played by Lauren Conroy. It’s the other six, and of course the smallest, Gretl, most of all, who touch us with their enthusiasm and innocence. In fact, on the night I saw the show, Gretl disappeared almost as soon as the show began, and after a short break was replaced by Felicity Walton who was superb.
They may be children but they are not amateurish. Two teams alternate (I saw the Yellow team plus Felicity from the Green team). I don’t doubt each team is equally accomplished, as they confidently sing, act and dance.
This is a good point at which to compliment the choreographer Lizzi Gee, a name always associated with the highest quality of work. You can also see the results of her creativity currently in Groundhog Day at The Old Vic. In this production, she presents one joyous routine after another inspired by and enhancing the music. There’s the gaucheness of young love between Liesl and Rolf (played by Dylan Mason) in Sixteen Going On Seventeen which sees them at first tentative in their contact until they end up splashing delightfully in a fountain. The Captain and Maria share a thrilling first dance which tells you all you need to know about their feelings for one another. The complex movements of the seven children show both their capacity for fun and their unity as a family. (Captain Von Trapp himself could not have produced more disciplined kids.)
I have one disappointment to report: the set. It’s surprising because Robert Jones has a great track record but I just don’t think his design works on this occasion. Leaving the thrust stage pretty empty is a good idea because there’s a big cast and a lot going on, without bits of set to manoeuvre around. However, the backdrop is dark hewn rock capped off by the shape of a mountain range. This may be intended to represent the Alps but, unlike those ‘friendly’ peaks, it is gloomy and claustrophobic. The abbey, the von Trapp house and the concert hall are conjured up by pieces of scenery in front of it. There is no sense of the Austrian open air, sky and nature that Maria and the Captain love and that is meant to add contrast to the confines of the Abbey and the darkness of the Nazis.
Where it does work is in the concert hall, venue for the von Trapp family’s public performance, when it is draped with swastikas, while Nazi soldiers stand in the aisles of the auditorium- a truly chilling moment.
So my prejudices were swept aside by the sound of Rodgers and Hammerstein. Whatever your mood going in, you will feel better when you leave, having seen good conquer evil, and love conquer all.