‘The Sound of Music’ is enthralling audiences at FMT this summer

By Ande Jacobson

This year, Foothill Music Theatre (FMT) is presenting that long-time family favorite, The Sound of Music. The show, with music by Richard Rodgers, lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, and book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, made its Broadway debut in 1959 with Mary Martin heading the cast as Maria. Today, far more people are familiar with the 1965 film version of the show as they picture Julie Andrews singing at the top of her lungs while running around an enchanting Alpine meadow. There’s a lot to love about The Sound of Music, and it has made the stage rounds in regional, community, and scholastic theaters for decades. The music is familiar to theater-goers young and old, and the story is touching with more than a hint of danger, a danger that has recently become all too recognizable. Long time standards from the show (and the movie) include “Edelweiss”, “My Favorite Things”, “Climb Ev’ry Mountain”, “Do-Re-Mi”, and the title song, “The Sound of Music”. There are a number of lesser known songs as well. The stage version has a few songs that were not in the movie and vice versa. FMT’s production keeps the best songs unique to the stage version, and adds a couple written for the movie to make the show more familiar to newer audiences.

The well-known story is based on Maria von Trapp’s memoir entitled, The Story of the Trapp Family Singers. Much of the story is the same, although the stage and film versions modified the timeline adding a bit of dramatic intrigue that wasn’t quite so dire in the real story.

On stage, Maria (Jillian Bader), a young novitiate, is called to interrupt her studies and serve as governess for Captain Georg von Trapp’s (Scott Solomon) seven children. Maria seeks the counsel of the Mother Abbess (Rachel Michelberg) navigating a few challenges along the way. The captain’s friends, Max Detweiler (Aaron Hurley) and Elsa Schraeder (Elizabeth Claire Lawrence) complicate matters a bit for both the captain and Maria, but the love story portion of the plot works out the way we all know it should. The captain’s eldest, Liesl (Madison Colgate), initially spurns the idea of any governess, but grows to both trust and love Maria. Rolf Gruber (Ryan Rathbun) is smitten with Liesl. He has some loyalty issues as Germany encroaches on Austria before and after the Anschluss leading up to WWII, but he eventually shows himself to be a mensch when it counts.

The younger children are double cast and alternate performances. At the press opening, the children’s cast included: Friedrich (Jake Miller), Louisa (Grace Hutton), Kurt (Billy Hutton), Brigitta (Anna Savage), Marta (Jane Quiazon), and Gretl (Mary Hutton). The children in the other cast include: Austin Ota, Charlotte Kearns, Wesley Stewart, Sofia Oberg, Sheridan Stewart, and Alyssa Kim respectively.

Director Milissa Carey keeps the action very tight to clock a run-time of slightly under 2 1/2 hours including intermission, which is on the short side for a production of this show. Most of the time, keeping the action moving works well, and it keeps the audience engaged. In a few scenes, such as the wedding sequence, and in the lead-up to the “Finale Ultimo”, this tightening makes those scenes seem a little abrupt. There is also a major faux pas having the Mother Abbess officiate the wedding instead of a priest. Although there have been a few cases in the last year or two when the Vatican has given permission for a Catholic nun to conduct a given wedding under very specific circumstances, it is not at all credible that a nun, even a high ranking one, would officiate a Catholic marriage ceremony during the WWII era.

Brett and C.J. Blankenship’s choreography is traditional for the show, and overall, it is well executed by the cast. The movements seem natural, and the dances flow nicely. The one exception is the dance in “Sixteen Going on Seventeen”. While Liesl and Rolf need to be tentative in their not-all-that-well-hidden relationship, Colgate and Rathbun appear more awkward than would be expected.

William Liberatore’s musical direction is lovely. The orchestra is reduced to less than half of the standard instrumentation. Even so, their sound is solid, well-balanced, and very expressive overall. On the night of the press opening, there were a couple of minor brass blatts, but they were momentary. The cast vocals are well-rehearsed, and their timing is quite good.

The two musical substitutions from the movie include “I Have Confidence”, which is used as Maria’s traveling music in place of a more morose reprise when she first leaves the abbey, and “Something Good” replaces “An Ordinary Couple” which is definitely an improvement over the original. The two songs that aren’t in the movie at all but are in the stage version are also intact – “How Can Love Survive” and “No Way to Stop It”. Both songs feature Max and Elsa, and Hurley and Lawrence shine in these numbers.

Bader is a lovely Maria. She commands the stage, and she has great chemistry with the kids, with Solomon, and with Michelberg. During the party in Act 1 when Maria and the captain dance, the scene is delightful. Both Bader and Solomon look comfortable and smooth as they glide across the stage in their intricate folk dance.

Bader’s belt range is especially nice, and her upper range is sweet. Her diction is a little soft in places, most notably on her “t’s” during “My Favorite Things” when “kittens”, “mittens”, and “satin” are not crisp. Bader and the kids stand out nicely on “Do-Re-Mi”. That’s a tough song, especially for the kids on the reprise, and they hold their own during the song’s difficult contrapuntal sequence. The orchestration helps by doubling the vocal lines in the winds and strings, but it’s still an impressive scene.

Another place the kids shine is in Act 1’s “So Long, Farewell”. That number is designed to feature each of them upon their exit, and they have no fear.

Solomon’s singing voice is a little inconsistent, but from a character perspective, the arc he takes is credible. When he first sings with the children, he is a little pitchy, and he sounds like someone who is a bit rusty in his singing. As he sings later in the show, particularly in “No Way to Stop It”, although he is not quite as strong as Lawrence and Hurley, he sounds much more confident and solid than he does earlier in his performance. He cracks during “Edelweiss” in Act 2, but that is an extremely emotional moment, and from a character perspective, works very well.

Michelberg plays a very seasoned Mother Abbess and dons an older character persona both in her acting and in her singing. She interacts tenderly with Bader, guiding the young Maria from a position of authority and wisdom. The quartet in “Maria” is nicely done including the Mother Abbess along with Sisters Sophia (Leandra Saenz), Berthe (Joanie Pugh Newman), and Margaretta (Melissa Costa). The complicated singing repartee is spunky and clean.

The nun choir is glorious, their harmonies filling the auditorium. The opening sequence is particularly nice, benefiting from Kuo-Hao Lo’s scenic design. The abbey gates and tower provide just the right tone. At the press opening, there appeared to be one Eastern Orthodox nun instead of Roman Catholic, as she crossed herself opposite her sisters in their opening benediction.

While the various sets work well with nice detail, such as the separate locations within the abbey, and the grand staircase in the von Trapp mansion (which when covered, doubles as a nice mountain slope for Maria’s first entrance), some of the staging for upcoming set changes isn’t quite as effective. At times, upcoming set pieces are visible to portions of the audience stage left when they should be out of sight.

While Andrew Heller’s overall sound design is nicely balanced, some of the sound cues were a little late on the press opening. As a result, a few actors’ mics weren’t always hot when a song started. That should smooth out as the cues tighten up through the run. Michael Ramsaur’s lighting design is effective, adding an edge in places where the tension builds.

The costume design provided by Mae Matos and Lisa Rozman is adequate. Some of the costumes are a bit ill-fitting and flimsy, but they generally give a reasonable and recognizable impression of the period and purpose required.

In spite of a few minor issues, FMT’s production is worth seeing. It is lively, nostalgic, and entertaining. And although it depicts a tense, prewar era that is suddenly more relevant than it used to be, it inspires hope and peace in following one’s dreams.

What:  The Sound of Music

Where:  Smithwick Theatre, Foothill College, 12345 El Monte Road, Los Altos, CA 94022

When:  Continues through 5 August 2018, Thursdays at 7:30pm, Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, and Sundays at 2pm.

See www.foothill.edu/theatre or call (650)949-7360 for tickets or more information.

(Photo courtesy of Foothill Music Theatre)


References:
The Story of the Trapp Family Singers
The World of the Trapp Family: The Life Story of the Legendary Family Who Inspired The Sound of Music
Memories Before and After the Sound of Music: An Autobiography
The Sound of Music (DVD)
The Sound of Music (Movie Soundtrack)
The Sound of Music (Original Broadway Cast Recording)
The Sound of Music (New Broadway Cast Recording)


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