After a tremendous publicity build-up with the search for a leading lady via TV reality show “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?,” the $10.1 million production of “The Sound of Music” that opened in Toronto Oct. 15 was under major pressure to equal the success generated by the similar one-two programming punch in London. On the basis of a wildly enthusiastic opening night reaction and local critical responses ranging from solid to superlative, it looks like lightning is about to strike twice for London producers Andrew Lloyd Webber and David Ian, joined here by Canadian impresario David Mirvish.
The show is so slickly staged, beautifully designed and carefully acted its success is well-deserved. The production is far superior to the last version done by the Stratford Festival in 2001, or the lackluster 1998 Broadway revival.
Those feeble productions cast doubts on the original material, whereas director Jeremy Sams and his creative team have made both Rodgers & Hammerstein’s score, and Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse’s book look better than ever.
Sams embraces the two polarities of the show often used to mock it: nuns and Nazis. The chanting black-robed women who fill the theater in his sweepingly liturgical opening stand in stark contrast to the gun-toting Nazis who suddenly spring up in the penultimate scene, as Swastika-covered banners surround the audience.
Rather than seeming corny, these bold theatrical strokes put the good-vs.-evil struggle that the original creative team believed in so vividly at center stage, while anchoring the plot’s more potentially syrupy elements.
Yes, there are seven von Trapp children and they are truly adorable, especially performing Arlene Phillips’ high-energy choreography. But having a captain as forceful and solid as Burke Moses makes sure there’s real tension in the family dynamic.
Lloyd Webber insisted he always wanted a very young woman to play Maria, and after his first choice (Scarlett Johansson) didn’t work out, he came up with idea of searching for his leading lady on a nationwide TV reality show.
The Canadian version of that show proved extremely popular for CBC this summer and the winning candidate, Elicia MacKenzie, makes a charming Maria — fresh, endearing, full-voiced and only occasionally betraying the fact this is her first professional engagement.
Lloyd Webber, however, has wisely taken a page from his London experience — where winning contestant Connie Fisher wound up losing her voice doing eight shows a week — and cast Canadian runner-up Janna Polzin as an alternate to perform two shows a week from the start of the run.
The rest of the cast acquit themselves excellently and help give the show a welcome dramatic heft. Particularly strong are Moses and Blythe Wilson, the Stratford Festival star of numerous musicals who plays the baroness with wit and charm. Megan Nuttall makes a lovely Liesl and her counterpart, Rolf, is given a nice edge by Shaw Festival vet Jeff Irving. Quebecois opera star No’lla Huet, makes a warmly knowing Mother Abbess; her full-out rendition of “Climb Every Mountain” is the show’s vocal highlight.
Technical values are first-rate, with Robert Jones’ sumptuous sets and costumes remaining one of the production’s major assets. His magical, ever-moving, three-dimensional mountain is wisely used only twice in the show, both times to knockout effect.
A production this solid would definitely be welcome on Broadway, but please — no more reality shows. If this one comes to Gotham, just cast the best Maria available . This version of “The Sound of Music” is good enough without the gimmicks.