By ALAN SMASON, WYES-TV Theatre Critic (“Steppin’ Out“)
NEW ORLEANS – It has become almost fashionable for many in the theatre world to find disfavor with the final collaboration between Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, The Sound of Music, The almost antiseptic manner in which the vile anti-Semitic Nazis are addressed in the book by Howard Lindsey and Russell Crouse is unpardonable, they would say. Also, they might add, the way in which known historic events in the lives of the Trapp Family Singers are ignored or misrepresented is – at the very least ambiguous – but more likely described as inaccurate.
For example, the rise of the Nazis and the Anschluss (“annexation of Austria”) takes place over a brief honeymoon period for Maria Rainer von Trapp, Captain Georg Von Trapp and the children. However, as an Austrian, Hitler demanded the self-determination of all German-speaking people under a greater Germany as one of the first demands of his party members and led to his rapid rise within the party elite in 1919.
The real life Maria went to work for the captain in 1926 and the two were married in 1927, more than a decade before the Anschluss. Also, the family suffered financial ruin in 1935 that led to their having to dismiss their servants and rent out their family estate. Eventually, it led them to tour as a family of singers. None of these are even remotely addressed in the book of the musical and the poetic use of escaping the Nazis at a musical competition and hiking up the Swiss Alps is somewhat amusing, if not absurd.
Leaving the book aside, the death of Hammerstein in 1960, just nine months after the opening of the show, made the treatment for the 1965 film of the musical problematic. Ernest Lehmann altered key scenes in the musical in order to give dramatic effect in the film. The exchange of “My Favorite Things” between Maria and the Mother Abbess was altered to become a scene at night with Maria comforting the children during a rainstorm. The original thunder-filled and lightning-accentuated scene in the musical had been used as the backdrop for the song “The Lonely Goatherd.” (In the film it became an outdoor daylight scene with marionettes.)
Rodgers also penned two additional songs for the Robert Wise-directed film. The first, “I Have Confidence,” was used as a means to show Maria’s determination to succeed and to showcase the beautiful Austrian countryside, while the second, “Something Good,” was designed to increase screen time and amplify the love story for stars Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer. Today, both of these selections are included as standard in the revised book for the musical.
When the musical is distilled into its basic parts, the protagonist is, of course, Maria and her journey from postulate to mother and wife. It is her memoir that served as the basis for the book and it is she who endures the greatest changes and struggles. Above the many qualities required, a good Maria must have an innate sense of acting that requires she move from naive and uncertain to maternal and self-assured.
And above everything else, she must sing like an angel.
With their most recent production of The Sound of Music and their hire of lyric soprano Sarah Jane McMahon as Maria, the Jefferson Performing Arts Society has reached for heaven and established a new standard of excellence that adds to the legacy of their most remarkable 2011 production still remembered with fondness and which starred Micah Richerand Desonnier.
McMahon is an internationally acclaimed and acknowledged world class opera singer and a former protegee of renowned tenor and conductor Placido Domingo. A local star who learned her craft at Loyola University, she also has the charisma and talent of a consummate actor. From the first moment she is seen on stage in the title song amid the lush backdrop of the Austrian Alps, her lilting voice soars as high as those statuesque peaks with sheen and brilliance. She positively beams as she sings of the joy she has in her heart for the countryside and nature. With the exception of the aforementioned “I Have Confidence,” all of the remainder of Maria’s numbers include interaction with others – the Mother Abbess (Katherine Halm), the captain (Richard Arnold) and the children.
It is in those scenes where McMahon shows how generous a performer she is. Her lyric soprano in balanced in “My Favorite Things” opposite Halm’s dramatic soprano and her duet with the captain of “Something Good” allows for his tenor to meld with her strong voice, but not overpower it.
For the second role in a role, Arnold assumes a character named Georg and does so with a suave and polished performance. As he proved in Summer Lyric Theatre’s production of She Loves Me this summer, his vocals are warm and his stage presence endearing. He proves to be the very essence of the military man filled with propriety, who finds himself smitten by a governess who brings music back into his life through his children and love into his heart.
Halm’s powerful instrument fills the house in “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” that closes act one and again as part of the “Finale Ultimo” that accompanies the Von Trapp family away from their beloved Austria. Should JPAS ever elect to produce another Rodgers and Hammerstein classic, Carousel, Halm would be a perfect addition as Nettie Fowler to sing “You’ll Never Walk Alone” and “June Is Bustin’ Out All Over.”
Yet, what most endears musical theatre lovers to The Sound of Music are the key scenes between the seven Von Trapp children and Maria, the most important being “Do-Re-Mi.” which is also reprised in the second act with the captain. McMahon is most generous in her ability to lead the children and allow them to paint a melodic portrait with their voices as beautiful and vibrant as any masterpiece.
There are two sets of children alternating the roles of Liesl (Riley Tafaro and Bailey Gabrish), Friedrich (Elijah Strain and Clay Kinler), Louisa (Bree Hollis and Margaret Lob), Kurt (Arthur Rusnak and Cayden Pecoraro), brigitta (Ella Grace Francis and Reece Bordelon), Marta (Jane Sale and Merah Benoit) and Gretl (Caroline Briscoe and Clayton Eustis). It should be added that McMahon’s own daughter is among the children’s cast, making this an especially memorable time for mother and daughter.
Laura Booras, as Elsa Schrader, the captain’s love interest before he discovers Maria, is beautifully coifed and a regal figure on the stage. Her vocals in “No Way to Stop It” along with Tom Vaughn as Max Detweiller and Arnold are very good. Vaughn plays the good-natured, but duplicitous Detweiller role a bit too straight-laced. He is, after all, to represent what remains of the good side of Austria, not tainted by the Nazis, and someone who helps them escape.
Peter Gabb as local Nazi enforcer Herr Zeller interacts well with Vaughn in his role as Detweiller. Zach Smallman also does a nice job of performing as Rolf Gruber, the 17-year-old messenger, who is attracted to Liesl, but who is also swept up in the fervor of the times.
As usual, Donna Clavijo adds masterful touches to the vocals as music director. She is to be complimented especially in her work with the nuns of the abbey in “Preludium,” which opens the show, and in act two’s back-to-back “Gadeamus Domino” and “Confitermini Domino,” which precede and comprise the wedding scene between Maria and the captain, respectively.
Dennis Assaf does a masterful job as the maestro leading the lush orchestrations with his usual bravado and panache. Of course, as the executive/artistic director of JPAS, he has much to do with the organization’s high standards and continual striving to improve.
Kenneth Beck served as both director and choregrapher with nice touches on “Sixteen Going on Seventeen,” a musical scene between Rolf, Liesl and a bicycle. The “So Long, Farewell” scene from act one and repeated at the competition late in the show is also endearing.
Meghan Kessel, Anna Walker and Meredith Lee Hotard also carry off their singing roles well as Sisters Berthe, Margaretta and Sophia, respectively, in “Maria” with Halm as the Mother Abbess adding support to the selection.
The set designs by Kristin Blatchford fill the stage at the Jefferson Performing Arts Center effectively and costumes by Ashley Smith are wonderfully rendered too with Laurin Hart doing a nice job on makeup and wigs. Robert Finch also is to be noted for his lighting design and Bethany Galyen for her various sound designs.
Due to an unexpected power outage on Saturday and Sunday, The Sound of Music by Rodgers and Hammerstein will finish its Jefferson Performing Arts Society run at the Jefferson Performing Arts Center, 6400 Airline Drive in Metairie with remaining shows on Monday and Tuesday, Oct. 28-29, at 7:00 p.m. . Tickets for canceled Saturday and Sunday shows can be exchanged at the box office. For show information or to purchase tickets, call 504-885-2000 or click here.