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Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Mere Words are Inadequate: Feore Triumphs (Again) with The Sound of Music

Music by Richard Rodgers, Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, Book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse
Suggested by “The Trapp Family Singers” by Maria Augusta Trapp
Directed and Choreographed by Donna Feore
Musical Direction by Laura Burton
Designed by MichaelGianfrancesco (set / costumes), Michael Walton (lighting) and Peter McBoyle (sound)

Stephanie Rothenberg as Maria and Anita Krause as
Mother Abbess. Photo by David Hou
Stratford is indeed blessed. For the third year running, there are two immediate hits on the Festival Stage.  First, Antoni Cimolino gave himself a hat-trick with Hamlet, and now so does Donna Feore with her Fiddler-Crazy-Sound of Music combo. 

The Sound of Music is immediately familiar – even to those who have never seen the Julie Andrews / Christopher Plummer film, the melodies of Do-Re-Mi or My Favourite Things are probably lodged in the brain-pan somewhere, and there is no doubt this is a heart-warming story and musical is meant to lift the audience to the very heavens. Or at least the mountains.

However it is a musical that can very easily be weighed down in the saccharine. The bones of the story are melodramatic: sweet nun wannabe sent to household of seven children starving for their father’s affections, a father who has shut himself off since his wife’s death. Nun wannabe brings music into the home and voila, love abounds and is powerful enough to defy the impending Nazi regime.

Read over the program notes and the realization sets in that the portrayals of both the von Trapps and Austria are nowhere near historically accurate. But what of that? Love conquers all might be a cliché, but a cliché by its definition is based in truth. Truth and honesty set this Sound of Music apart.

Zoe Brown as Gretl and Stephanie Rothenberg as Maria.
Photo by David Hou
In this production, the nun wannabe Maria is brought to ebullient life by Stephanie Rothenberg. This Maria is a true free spirit, one that would like to belong somewhere – she believes it is in an abbey – but whose passion for life simply cannot be contained. Ms. Rothenberg’s voice is as pure as the mountain air about which she sings, and she completely convinces as the naïve young woman who knows nothing of the world of men but whose instincts for affection and play are infectious, and her will to do ‘the right thing’ is as strong as the Captain’s.

Ben Carlson as Captain von Trapp with company members.
Photo by David Hou
The Captain in this instance is played by Ben Carlson - once again Ms. Feore chose to cast a lead from the acting company, and once again is pays off in spades. Mr. Carlson can do witty and acerbic better than anyone, but here he is a troubled, lonely man, one that must be willing to have his eyes and heart reopened to his family. Even the hardest heart will come over tearful when he “re-meets” his little Gretel, and Mr. Carlson provides so many of these moments that it can be argued that he is as much the heart of this production as Ms. Rothenberg.

Alexandra Herzog as Liesel Von Trapp
and Gabriel Antonacci as Rolf Gruber in
The Sound of Music. Photo by David Hou
The von Trapp children are all played by real children, not professional actors, and it shows. No, this is not a criticism, their “realness” is happily delightful – they argue, bicker, poke at each other, share sly glances, and support each other. The one professional (Alexandra Herzog) who plays the eldest Liesel certainly can be said to be corralling the others at moments, but it always seems in the vein of a protective older sibling, not as a “hey kids, watch how it’s done” kind of way. That they are allowed to be kids, and be cute and funny and brutally honest is a credit to Ms. Feore’s relish for the truth. The children are played by Sean Dolan, Effie Honeywell, Alec Dahmer, Graci Leahy, Sarah DaSilva and Zoe Brown.

Ms. Feore finds ways to interject honesty everywhere. As the kids learn to sing they begin to march (the only movement they know), much to the hilarious dismay of Maria, and the kids gasp in horror as Maria bounds onto the sofa in a fit of joy – until she gives them permission to have fun. As the Captain begins to sing Edelweiss, the surrounding Nazi’s become fidgety and uncomfortable, faced with such quiet defiance. Even Max and Elsa are shown to have fearful cracks in their glib masks by Shane Carty and Robin Evan Willis.

Honesty, playfulness, heart – this review could easily be stretched to give more examples of how this production embodies these qualities, but go see for yourself and be carried away.  Indeed, words are not enough to praise this production of The Sound of Music, so paradoxically it would be best praised in music – Beethoven’s Ode to Joy springs immediately to mind.

The Sound of Music continues in repertory at the Festival Theatre until May 18.

L-R: Alexandra Herzog as Liesel, Alec Dahmer as Kurt, Graci Leahy as Brigitta,
Stephanie Rothenberg as Maria, Zoe Brown as Gretl, Ben Carlson as Captain von Trapp,
Sarah DaSilva as Marta, Effie Honneywell as Louisa and Sean Dolan as Friedrich.
Photo by David Hou

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