By Barry Reszel
Those graced enough to have a ticket to experience Broadway in Chicago’s stunningly exquisite touring production of The Sound of Music share one thing in common.
Somewhere in their youth or childhood, they must have done something good.
There’s just no better justification to describe the good fortune bestowed on patrons of this glorious contribution to Richard Rodgers‘ and Oscar Hammerstein‘s canon, arguably the most beloved of American musicals.
The hardest part of mounting a Broadway-quality production of any classic is the necessary balancing act to honor and satisfy history and memory while at the same time offering something new, fresh and exciting. This is particularly true (and daunting) for The Sound of Music, which includes the ever-present shadow of the 1966 Academy Award winning Best Picture featuring iconic British leading lady Julie Andrews, against whom all subsequent Marias are forever destined to be compared.
Well, Dame Julia Elizabeth Andrews, meet Kerstin Anderson.
This delightful, young actress was plucked by veteran Broadway director extraordinaire Jack O’Brien from the student body at New York’s Pace University to lead his national tour, now in its second year. Anderson, reminiscent of a young Reese Witherspoon, brings an all-her-own innocence and Austrian lass authenticity to the role. This, along with significant vocal chops, means she’d be a sure-fire Tony nominee if this production was resident in a Big Apple 500-seat theatre instead of zig-zagging the country. Thank goodness for musical loving patrons throughout the United States it isn’t.
And while Anderson is the undeniable star, hers is by no means the sole take-away performance. International stage veteran Ben Davis is a fabulous Georg von Trapp and Chicagoan Melody Betts a charming, less operatic, more real Mother Abbess than is typically portrayed. Particular kudos also go to Merwin Foard, whose depiction of lovable freeloading concert huckster Max Detweiler is truly superb
So, too, the ensemble singing is top-tier, both among the von Trapp children and the nuns of Nonnberg Abbey. Lovely Paige Sylvester as Liesl is particularly noteworthy for both her voice and effortless dance abilities. In fact, O’Brien’s nuances injected into the relationship between Maria and Liesl exemplify how this production leaves its own mark. From Liesl’s literal and figurative stand-offishness at their first introduction to Maria’s whispering in her ear as Liesl exits the Kaltzberg Festival (you can almost hear, “Make sure all the kids are ready to run”), this production offers a loving step-mother/daughter relationship as a subtle sub-plot. Take that, Disney.
What O’Brien also achieves with this massive production is requisite, consistently quick pacing. Many agree that old-time musicals, particularly those in the R & H catalogue, can drag under the guidance of lesser directors. That’s certainly not the case here. Perhaps a nun has to shove a set piece on or off, but no one should mind a bit. If there’s a sacrifice, it’s the omission of the empowering, “I Have Confidence,” written for the movie and included in some stage renditions. But it’s a worthwhile trade-off to keep the action moving swiftly from the hills being alive until the doggone mountain is climbed and the family free from the Nazis. (Anyone in need of a plot summary of all that goes on in between or wanting production information from 1959 onward may find it all here.)
Two additional plaudits deserve particular delivery here. Scenic Designer Douglas W. Schmidt‘s work to meld stained glass, lace, Austrian aristocracy, Swastikas and picturesque landscapes into quickly moveable and regularly packable set pieces is heroic. These designs are award-worthy of their own right, and the magnificent water-color look of the Austrian Alps is nearly as breathtaking as the real deal. They are certainly enhanced, literally and figuratively illuminated, by the splendid work of Lighting Designer Natasha Katz.
Obviously, Broadway in Chicago’s and O’Brien’s hills are truly alive with this Sound of Music production that every fan of musical theater who did something good in their youth or childhood deserves to see.
(A personal note: Some folks in the north suburbs might be focused on one alive hill in particular. Libertyville native Adam Hill is a member of the production’s ensemble, serving as a swing and understudy. I had the chance to work with Adam several years ago on productions of Godspell (he was Jesus), Children of Eden and several summer Broadway showcases. A finer gentleman performer does not exist. May this be but the beginning of a wonderfully successful career in professional musical theatre for him.)
Broadway in Chicago presents “The Sound of Music” through June 19 at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph St, Chicago. More information and tickets ($24 – $115) are available by calling (800) 775-2000 or online here.