L.A. Theater Review: ‘The Sound of Music,’ Directed by Jack O’Brien

Sound of Music review tour
Matthew Murphy

Too bad Pope Francis couldn’t have capped his U.S. visit with the revival of “The Sound of Music” at the Ahmanson Theater. The Holy Father would surely have been impressed, not just by the respect accorded the Catholic faith with which the Trapp Family saga is permeated, but by the fresh take on material now officially as old as the hills Maria (newcomer Kerstin Anderson) keeps warbling about. Director Jack O’Brien tests rather than challenges tradition, bringing shimmering novelty to a familiar piece’s look and sound. Prospects for the upcoming multicity tour are as immense as the Paramount-logo-like Alp looming benignly over the proceedings.

When it comes to warhorse properties like the 1960 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, audience expectations are a tricky thing. O’Brien sticks down the line with the original Lindsay & Crouse libretto (as did the 2013 live NBC broadcast starring Carrie Underwood), so memo to fans of the changes wrought for the 1965 Best Picture winner: Sorry, no puppet show. No “Confidence In Me,” no bike ride through Salzburg. “Lonely Goatherd,” not “My Favorite Things,” chases away a scary thunderstorm.

Rest easy, though: The story’s bones and cozy, iconic tunes are intact. In-and-out-of-convent postulant Maria once again finds love with gruff widower Georg von Trapp (Ben Davis) while turning his seven sullen, ignored kids into the Partridge Family and escaping the Nazi takeover of Austria.

Preopening buzz has centered on youth. Anderson is less than half the age of original Maria, Mary Martin, and younger than Julie Andrews was, too. Eldest Liesl (fetching Paige Silvester) for once actually seems 16 going on 17, not 21 going on 30. And the littler ones certainly earn audience “awww”s for skillfully pulling off their precocious antics on the giant stage of the Ahmanson Theater.

More significantly, O’Brien, whose brainchild this remounting was, teases out the behavioral authenticity in every moment. He seems to have parsed every line and lyric for what it implies and made it count. When Maria confesses she escapes to the hills “when my heart is lonely,” she seems troubled, so the lyric finally makes sense. One reference to daughter Brigitta (Svea Johnson) “noticing everything,” or to local lad Rolf (Dan Tracy) being “just a boy,” inspires character arcs running satisfyingly through the story.

The movie’s Trapp kids no sooner open their Trapps than they’re a polished ensemble. It’s more gradual here, and more believable. Assisted by choreographer Danny Mefford, O’Brien has their artistry grow from indifference, to falling under the infectious spell of “Do Re Mi,” to the title number’s complex choral work. (Musicianship, supervised by Andy Einhorn and conducted by Jay Alger, is first-rate throughout.)

By “So Long, Farewell” the family is as snappy as Menudo, but Maria probably rehearsed them ragged with discipline learned from dynamo Mother Abbess Ashley Brown, Broadway’s original stage “Mary Poppins,” who won opening night cheers for “Climb Every Mountain” before hitting the final note.

The central romance also develops charmingly over time, with Davis a warm and likeable paterfamilias and Anderson — discovered while still an undergrad — possessing a born Pied Piper’s natural glow (though she, like Underwood, seems to have no control over her hands). As campy counterpoint, antagonists Elsa (Teri Hansen) and Max (Merwin Foard) suggest Thurston and Lovey Howell visiting from “Gilligan’s Island,” which isn’t as much of a knock as it may sound. They’re just a little off, that’s all, which actually seems right.

Also right is the lovely, understated physical production, from Douglas W. Schmidt’s huge, spare setpieces to the brilliant period feel and palette of Jane Greenwood’s costumes. Natasha Katz’s lighting wizardry sets off the religioso atmosphere with excitement and taste.

And in case you were wondering, no longer does Maria troop down the bridal aisle while her nun friends call her a “flibbertijibbet.” Now it’s pre-ceremony teasing in the veiling room. O’Brien has seen to everything.

sound-of-music-review-national-tour

L.A. Theater Review: 'The Sound of Music,' Directed by Jack O'Brien

Ahmanson Theater, 2,074 seats; $150 top. Opened, reviewed Sept. 30, 2015. Runs through Oct. 31. Running time: TWO HOURS, 40 MIN.

Production

A Center Theatre Group presentation, by special arrangement with The Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization, Crouse Literary Properties Company LLC and The Howard Lindsay Trust, of a musical in two acts with music by Richard Rodgers and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II. Book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, suggested by “The Trapp Family Singers” by Maria Augusta Trapp.

Creative

Directed by Jack O’Brien. Choreography, Danny Mefford; music supervisor, Andy Einhorn; sets, Douglas W. Schmidt; costumes, Jane Greenwood; lighting, Natasha Katz; sound, Ken Travis; orchestrations, Robert Russell Bennett; dance & vocal arrangements, Trude Rittman; music director/conductor, Jay Alger; production stage manager, B.J. Forman.

Cast

Kerstin Anderson, Ben Davis, Ashley Brown, Merwin Foard, Teri Hansen, Paige Silvester, Dan Tracy, Audrey Bennett, Mackenzie Currie, Quinn Erickson, Svea Johnson, Maria Knasel, Erich Schuett, Kyla Carter, Jeremy Michael Lanuti, Aviva Winick.

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  1. Azi says:

    I’ll be seeing this in Tampa in December. Whether or not I’ll be HEARING it as well (given the Straz’ Center’s notoriously non-existent acoustics) remains to be seen/heard. So I’m an optimist—hopefully a few glitches will be tweeked’!

  2. toscaskiss32 says:

    I hope you’re right in saying “O’Brien sticks down the line with the original Lindsay & Crouse libretto,” but I heard an unwelcome rumor that, like the live television version, this production follows the movie’s lead in replacing “An Ordinary Couple” with the inferior (especially for the specific moment in the show) “Something Good.” I’d be so happy to find out that rumor was wrong. Won’t get to see the show myself until November. I wonder how large the orchestral ensemble was. I got spoiled, seeing the Irving, TX Lyric Stage production in 2013, and hearing all that glorious music — especially Richard Rodgers’ choral music for the nuns — sung and played by an orchestra of, I think, 38 players. Rodgers could damn sure weave the most glorious music, but as a lyricist, he doesn’t come close to Oscar Hammerstein II (or, for that matter, to Lorenz Hart or Stephen Sondheim; he appeared to be better at picking lyricists with whom to collaborate than at writing the lyrics himself).

  3. George says:

    I know press releases and interviews have made a great deal about the younger performers in this production but the only major age difference is in the role of Maria. Somehow Mary Martin (for whom the show was written) made it work as she did playing a young boy in PETER PAN! Lauri Peters (the original Liesl) was only 17 when THE SOUND OF MUSIC opened. Patricia Neway (the original Mother Abbess) was 39 when the show began its tryout and had just turned 40 by the time of the Broadway opening; Ashley Brown, at 35 is only five years younger. And, in the other direction: 40-year-old Ben Davis (as the Captain) is actually five years older than the 35-year-old Theodore Bikel was when the show opened and six years older than the 34-year-old Christopher Plummer was the film was shot.

  4. Eleanor says:

    Thought it was awful, as did so many around us. Nuns with lipstick on? Nuns who have no idea how Nuns act or move?? (no stereotypes, just from someone who has been around Nuns her entire life) Couldn’t they meet with Nuns to know this? NO tension in the play in the 2nd half when we’re too be afraid because of the Germans…it was like the “Keystone Cops” behind the curtain and the audience was laughing near me, instead of fear. Singing was beautiful in this production, but the acting not great. That’s what sets Mary Martin and julie Andrews apart–not just from the Maria, but from ALL.

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