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.