There is no work in musical theater that is as familiar as Rodgers & Hammerstein’s chronicle of the youthful nun-in-training Maria Rainer (Meg Tolin) and her adventures with Capt. Georg von Trapp (Richard Chamberlain) and his seven children during the period just before Germany’s pre- World War II surge into Austria. It is a tribute to director Susan H. Schulman, a spectacularly inventive design team and an outstanding ensemble that this road show production of this well-worn work is as vibrantly inventive and captivating as if it were having its world premiere.
Schulman has invigorated the storyline and the characters with such a zestful, humor-filled inner life, there is a sense of discovering the plot and the personalities for the first time. The director is aided immensely by the wonderfully mobile, richly detailed sets of Heidi Ettinger and the sumptuous, mood-enhancing lighting of Paul Gallo.
Their efforts are showcased perfectly in what is usually one of the lesser numbers, “Maria,” wherein Mother Abbess (Jeanne Lehman) and three other nuns (Sylvia Rhyne, Linda Strasser, Betsi Morrison) ruminate over whether the young postulant is or isn’t “an asset to the abbey.”
By imbuing the scene with the laborious tasks that are a daily part of convent life, the discussion over Maria’s suitability takes on the profound importance of how her actions will affect the stability of these ladies who have devoted their lives to this spiritual calling.
Of course, this is Maria’s story, and Tolin just soars through it with a soaring voice and personality that exudes life-affirming vigor and humor. She captures perfectly the essence of a blossoming young woman who can relate on almost a peer level with the von Trapp children in such ditties as “Do-Re-Mi” and “My Favorite Things,” yet radiate a palpable feminine allure in her “Something Good” duet with Capt. von Trapp.
Though he doesn’t possess an equal vocal strength and surety of pitch, Chamberlain’s staunch, socially rigid Captain offers a perfect contrast to the emotionally overflowing Maria. Chamberlain effectively communicates the emotional evolution of this man whose resistance crumbles when witnessing how his children have blossomed under Maria’s caring tutelage.
It is such a delight to find the children have such distinct personalities and haven’t just been cast according to height. Carissa Farina absolutely makes viable Maria’s awareness that “Brigitta notices everything.” And Megan McGinnis’s Liesl is a bud just bursting to bloom, particularly in her hilariously aggressive “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” duet with Ben Sheaffer’s young Nazi-wannabe Rolf, highlighted by choreographer Michael Lichtefeld’s folk dance-imbued pas de deux. The children certainly have an ally in Lichtefeld, whose inventiveness also enhances the utter charm of “So Long, Farewell” and “The Lonely Goatherd.”
As the worldly outsiders, Rachel DeBenedet’s sophisticated Elsa Schraeder and Drew Eshelman’s comically scheming Max Detweiler make perfectly clear that the world is turning on darker times in their macabre proclamation that there is “No Way to Stop It.”