It’s one thing to take a new Broadway show such as “The Drowsy Chaperone” and give it a supremely stellar local production, as Good Company Players did last year.
But in some ways it’s even more impressive when you can take an old classic such as “The Sound of Music” and make it fresh, exciting and, well, downright beautiful. That’s what director Dan Pessano and his stellar cast, production team and crew have done with the current production at Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater.
I’ve seen “The Sound of Music” many, many times — both professionally and at the community-theater level — and this is my all-time favorite version.
As superlative shows usually do, this one had me from the opening moments, when the wonderful Hanna Nielsen, as Maria, sings the title song sitting alone in a mountain meadow. This isn’t a time for big vocals or grand performance — it’s a tender, solitary, intensely personal communion between conflicted young novitiate and the land she knows so well. I knew in my musical-theater gut the moment I heard Nielsen’s understated and sensitive approach to the number that there were great things to come.
I saw the show midway through the run — and there are just three weeks left of performances. It closes July 15.
Pictured: John Clay Cowger, Colin Bracewell, Taryn Morgan, Kindle Cowger, Karlie Stemler, Maya Gengozian, Claira Broach and Gordon Moore in “The Sound of Music.”
“The Sound of Music” is so loved and well-known by audiences that you could almost do a shorthand version. In that regard, it’s relatively easy to do a by-the-numbers job of directing it. What Pessano accomplishes is something far more distinctive: capturing the essence of the original while giving it an invigorating sheen.
Time and again, little moments in the show shine: the way Sara Price (as a vocally thrilling Mother Abess) interacts with Maria the first time we hear “My Favorite Things”; the smartly staged take on the traditional “up and down” sequence in a first-rate “Do-Re-Mi”; the innovative homespun take on “The Lonely Goatherd” as the children make creative use of Maria’s bedspread; the tenderness with which Captain Von Trapp (a strong yet tender Eric Estep) gazes at his children the first time he hears them sing in a long while.
The seven Von Trapp family children are superb. (Claira Broach, John Clay Cowger, Kindle Cowger, Colin Bracewell, Maya Gengozian, Taryn Moran and Karlie Stemler appeared in the Sunday matinee I attended; they alternate with Kara Linkowski, Nathan Fennacy, Emily Estep, Samuel Linkowski, Chelsea Newton, Kyla Martin and Avery Addington.) Their vocals, acting and stage movements (choreographer is Steve Souza) are all wonderful. Best of all, the children feel like a cohesive unit — a true family.
Other standouts in the large cast include Heather Price as Baroness Schraeder and a stirring trio of nuns (Jacquie Broach, Pamela Bratton and Gigi Gibbs).
The vocals are exemplary nearly all around — not just from three or four leading performers, which is often the case in local productions, but in a widespread, deep-pockets way, from Tyler Branco’s Rolf in “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” to the nuns ensemble in the gorgeous “Maria” reprise. (Judith Dickison is vocal coach).
There were only a few less-than-sterling acting moments for me: I thought there could have been more chemistry between Branco and Claira Broach’s Liesl; and I just didn’t connect with Gordon Moore’s too-glib performance as the calculating Max.
The musical’s creative team is in fine form. From David Pierce’s clever and economical set to Ginger Kay Lewis-Reed’s impeccable period costumes, the look of the show is top-notch. I was particularly impressed with Brandi Martin’s nuanced lighting design, which allows the dramatic impact of various scenes to swell with a slight but noticeable intensity. From the crisp mountain air of Austria to the cool hazy interiors of the church, the lighting is a key part of giving this production such an accomplished feel.
Then there are Nielsen and Estep as Maria and the Captain, who are the heart of the show. Her vocals soar and his fill the hall with mellow authority. Both find something slightly new and distinctive in their characterizations in a way that makes the roles their own but also pays tribute to the many Marias and Captains who have come before. I was moved by the depth of feeling in their portrayals. (And, yes, a chipper Pessano finds just a little bit of sexy in their relationship, a nice touch.)
In any culture, humans embrace favorite stories. “The Sound of Music” is certainly one of ours. I walked into this show ready for a dutiful retelling. Instead what I got was something so capably fashioned that it became less another revival and more a transcendent experience.