Wednesday, June 08, 2016

Among My Favorite Things: A Wonderful 'Sound of Music' With All the Von Trappings of Grandeur -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

The Sound of Music
National Tour
Cadillac Palace, Chicago
Thru June 19

Somewhat akin to the Kander & Ebb musical Cabaret--of which I also saw a sensational touring edition this year in Chicago--Rodgers & Hammerstein's The Sound of Music is all the more brilliant for the way it intertwines a remarkably tuneful score with the inhumane rise of Nazism.

That its rash of hummable songs--"The Sound of Music," "My Favorite Things," "Do-Re-Mi," "Sixteen Going on Seventeen," "So Long, Farewell" and more--are accompanied by foreboding undercurrents makes for a musical masterpiece while reminding that the delightful and the despicable aren't always mountains apart.

To which today's political landscape--and newfound specter of fascism--only enhances the eerie resonance.

So while one might imagine mercenary producers trotting out a legendary title simply for the sake of a National Tour with built-in box office, esteemed director Jack O'Brien's new production of The Sound of Music feels entirely vital for anyone who embraces not only musical theater but all of mankind.

Photo credit on all: Matthew Murphy
And though reading that the winsome Kerstin Anderson was a college sophomore before being selected to star as Maria had me assuming that this is a Non-Equity tour, a bit of online research affirms that this is indeed an Equity production. (I couldn't find any such indication in the Playbill.)

Which isn't a huge deal, as I would have called it the best Non-Equity production in memory, but this does corroborate my sense that those who get down to Cadillac Palace in the next two weeks will see a Broadway-caliber rendition, actors' union performers and all.

Anderson--who even from the upper balcony seemed to have major stardom written all over her--is accompanied by a stellar cast through and through, including Ben Davis as Captain Georg von Trapp, Paige Silvester as Liesl, the kids playing the six other von Trapp children (Jeremy Michael Lanuti, Ashley Brooke, Austin Levine, Iris Davies, Kyla Carter and Audrey Bennett in the characters' descending age order) and Melody Betts, who delivers a sublime "Climb Ev'ry Mountain" as the Mother Abbess.

Also quite fine are Dan Tracy as Liesl's love interest Rolf, Teri Hansen as Elsa (a love interest of Captain von Trapp before he met a girl named Maria--sorry, wrong classic musical) and Merwin Foard as Max, a Minister of Culture in the show's pre-war Austrian setting who encourages the musically-talented family to perform publicly.

Under the musical direction of conductor Jay Alger, the orchestra aptly reiterates the mirthful magnificence of Rodgers and Hammerstein overtures and entr'actes, and the vocalists quite favorably render all of the sensational songs.

While the aforementioned classics consistently brought a smile to my brain, I was even more struck by how good the lesser-known tunes are, and came off here.

The family singalong of "The Lonely Goatherd" was blissfully abetted by Anderson's youthful exuberance, songs like "How Can Love Survive?," "No Way to Stop It" and "Something Good" further showcased R&H's deft musical/lyrical mastery and Davis' delivery of "Edelweiss" was truly touching.

Just a few weeks ago, I enjoyed the Lyric Opera of Chicago's fine staging of Rodgers & Hammerstein's The King and I, but noted in my @@@@ (out of 5) review that there just weren't enough songs I found truly sublime.

This was my fourth time seeing, and loving, The Sound of Music in the past 5 years--including at the Lyric in 2014--and I've long been smitten by the 1965 movie starring Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer, so I wasn't exactly surprised by the majesty of the score, yet was reminded just how rare it is for a musical to have all of its songs be magnificent.

And while this might well be chauvinistic of me, despite having taken some issue with the Lyric's pairing of a rather young King (Paolo Montalbano) and Kate Baldwin's clearly older Anna in The King and I, here I felt O'Brien's choice of Anderson to play a youthful, more sisterly governess to the von Trapp children worked well and didn't pose a creepy disconnect when Davis' more mature Captain started to make googly-eyes at her. (i.e. She doesn't seem that young.)

Despite having seen The Sound of Music repeatedly in recent years--after it long stood as the most famous musical I'd never seen onstage--I can't really say I discerned the "radical new approach" said to have been taken by Jack O'Brien, a three-time Tony Award winner.

But I don't recall such prevalent use of Nazi symbolism as employed by set designer Douglas W. Schmidt, with five large banners backing the Von Trapps during their festival performance towards the end.

Though it will always be disturbing for me to see swastikas, their bold use served to further the poignant messaging of The Sound of Music and amplify how close to home the ascendancy to power through scapegoating, hate and exclusion threatens to hit.

In a year when Broadway in Chicago is bringing hot new musicals like Hamilton, Fun Home, Finding Neverland and the already come-and-gone Matilda to town for the first time, as well as currently presenting the world premiere of The SpongeBob Musical--I see it next Tuesday--it might seem like The Sound of Music is just a golden oldie to placate more traditional theatergoers.

Yet not only was it good to see the Cadillac Palace balcony near capacity on Tuesday night, including a good number of families, through a truly outstanding production of one of the greatest musicals ever created, The Sound of Music served to remind that--although first bowing on Broadway in 1959--it remains very much a musical for our times.

Happily and unfortunately.

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