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The Sound of Music

The sound of music is just fine; it's everything in between that's gone flat. The ultimate Baby Boomer musical, with songs as recognizable as anything in the "Big Chill" soundtrack, "The Sound of Music" hasn't aged particularly well as a piece since its debut in 1959, but its Rodgers & Hammerstein score remains a lovely coda to the golden age of Broadway musicals.

The sound of music is just fine; it’s everything in between that’s gone flat. The ultimate Baby Boomer musical, with songs as recognizable as anything in the “Big Chill” soundtrack, “The Sound of Music” hasn’t aged particularly well as a piece since its debut in 1959, but its Rodgers & Hammerstein score (nicely sung in this revival) remains a lovely coda to the golden age of Broadway musicals.

The resurrection of the von Trapp Family saga seems to make good commercial sense, given Broadway’s newfound outreach to 40-ish parents and their young families. An entire generation got its first big taste of Broadway music via the original cast album, featuring Mary Martin, which spent more than three years on the album sales chart. Their younger siblings were then exposed to the 1965 Julie Andrews film. The songs “My Favorite Things,” “Do-Re-Mi” and “So Long, Farewell” were as ubiquitous on most playgrounds then as any nursery rhyme. Boomer nostalgia should fuel some good box office for this tasteful, even sedate , revival directed by Susan H. Schulman.

Whether this resolutely old-fashioned show plants seeds in the memories of today’s youngsters is another matter altogether. And truth be told, there are plenty of middle-agers who remember “Sound of Music” as the final shovelful of dirt dug from the chasm separating the pre- and post-rock eras, the coup de grace for a wheezing genre that blew away any notion of cultural relevance or hipness. This faithful revival will inspire no reevaluation.

Even those who remember the music fondly are likely to groan or yawn at the hokey, tepid book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse. Played on the pretty, misty-mountaintop sets (sterling work, as usual, from designer Heidi Ettinger), Schulman’s admirably restrained staging cuts through (at least as much as possible) the coyness and cuteness of this adorable-kid-heavy show. Still, the director and her cast are pretty much powerless to make lines like “The Captain won’t have music here!” seem any less silly.

The captain (Michael Siberry), of course, is the stern paterfamilias of the motherless von Trapp clan, an Austrian Brady Bunch circa 1938 with vocal chops and an aversion to anything Nazi. Into their sad, regimented lives comes free spirit Maria (Rebecca Luker), the new governess sent over by the local nuns who have given up on trying “to solve a problem” like the unconventional postulant.

Maria (played by Luker with more sweetness than spark) quickly wins the hearts of the seven love-starved children, from tiny Gretl (Ashley Rose Orr) to the 16-going-on-17 Liesl (Sara Zelle). In no time she has them singing and wearing play clothes (!), much to the consternation of the widower captain, who has distanced himself from the kids since the death years earlier of his wife.

Maria’s radiance soon melts the icy aorta of von Trapp himself, and before the brood can finish singing “The hills are alive,” the old man himself is chiming in. The hackneyed book wastes no time on making believable von Trapp’s transformation from Grinch to Fred MacMurray, and Siberry’s stiff performance doesn’t smooth things over.

While the first act concentrates on the domestic melodrama (including a subplot about a rich widow trying to marry her fortune with von Trapp), the second act broadens its scope to the political, as the Nazis move into Austria and demand that von Trapp fight the bad fight. The clan, of course, escapes the Germans by performing at a local concert and fleeing the auditorium before the houselights go up.

The revival plays up the Nazi threat by having the final concert recital performed in front of three stage-to-ceiling Nazi flags, a striking visual gambit undermined by the cheery performances of the von Trapp Singers. Little, if any, nervous tension is suggested by a family performing under the watchful eye of armed Nazis, as if the director didn’t want anything to interfere with “The Lonely Goatherd.”

And frankly, Schulman’s approach is an understandable one in terms of protecting this musical. Nothing — not dramatic credibility, and certainly not the horror of history — should interfere with a lineup of songs that is by far the best thing the show has going for it. This is, after all, “The Sound of Music,” not “Schindler’s List,” and “Maria,” “I Have Confidence,” “Edelweiss” and, of course, the title song — all well staged and performed here — make much else on stage forgivable. Even “Climb Ev’ry Mountain,” a second-rate rehash of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” from “Carousel,” takes an undeniable hold on the audience.

The production is staffed with fine singers, from the Gregorian-chanting nuns to each of the von Trapps. Luker’s clear, pretty voice is the strongest aspect of her performance — her acting is merely passable — while Siberry, in the thankless role of the father, does little to humanize this stuffed lederhosen. Only Jan Maxwell, as the captain’s wealthy, urbane fiancee, Elsa, brings more to her role than the essentials.

The physical production is quite attractive, if not all-out spectacular, with Ettinger’s sets shifting from the shadowy interior of the abbey (well lit by Paul Gallo) to the wedding-cake exterior of the von Trapp home and vast expanse of purple-mountain backdrop. Catherine Zuber’s period costumes maintain the production’s poise, and Michael Lichtefeld’s choreography of waltzes and kids’ dances blends in nicely.

So will real kids waltz into the theater? Yes, if their parents have anything to say about it. But only an abbess could believe that children enthralled by the parade of fantastic animals at “The Lion King” will be equally taken with queues of chanting nuns. Even Mom and Dad might fidget a bit before that final “so long, farewell, auf Wiedersehen, goodbye.”

The Sound of Music

Martin Beck Theater, New York; 1,422 seats; $75 top

  • Production: A Hallmark, Thomas Viertel, Steven Baruch, Richard Frankel and Jujamcyn Theaters presentation, in association with the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization, Charles Kelman Prods., Simone Genatt Haft, Marc Routh, Jay Binder and Robert Halmi Jr., of the musical in two acts, with music by Richard Rodgers, lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse. Directed by Susan H. Schulman.
  • Crew: Musical direction, Michael Rafter; choreography, Michael Lichtefeld; sets, Heidi Ettinger; costumes, Catherine Zuber; lighting, Paul Gallo; sound, Tony Meola; orchestrations, Bruce Coughlin; dance and incidental music arrangements, Jeanine Tesori; original orchestrations, Robert Russell Bennett; original choral and dance arrangements, Trude Rittmann; music coordination, John Miller; production manager, Peter Fulbright. Opened March 12, 1998; reviewed March 9. Running time: 2 HOURS, 40 MIN.
  • Cast: <B>Cast:</B> Jeanne Lehman (Sister Margaretta), Gina Ferrall (Sister Berthe), Patti Cohenour (Mother Abbess), Ann Brown (Sister Sophia), Rebecca Luker (Maria Rainer), Michael Siberry (Capt. Georg von Trapp), John Curless (Franz), Patricia Conolly (Frau Schmidt), Sara Zelle (Liesl von Trapp), Ryan Hopkins (Friedrich von Trapp), Natalie Hall (Louisa von Trapp), Matthew Ballinger (Kurt von Trapp), Tracy Alison Walsh (Brigetta von Trapp), Andrea Bowen (Marta von Trapp), AshleyRose Orr (Gretl von Trapp), Dashiell Eaves (Rolf Gruber), Lynn C. Pinto (Ursula), Jan Maxwell (Elsa Schraeder), Fred Applegate (Max Detweiler), Timothy Landfield (Herr Zeller), Gannon McHale (Baron Elberfeld), Martha Hawley (Baroness Elberfeld), Laura Benanti (New Postulate), Reno Roop (Admiral von Schreiber).
  • Music By: