THE RECORD    Wednesday, November 05, 2003

Just enough sentiment for a classic

By Jim Beckerman, staff writer

How do you solve a problem like "The Sound of Music"?

That is, how do you present the war-horse Rodgers and Hammerstein musical in such a way as to not disappoint all the moms, small children, and other assorted lovers of chirrupy songs, kindly nuns, and alpine scenery, but won't give the rest of us glucose poisoning?

One way is to cast Amanda Watkins as Maria.

If Mary Martin, who played the role in the 1959 Broadway original, gave it a touch of Texas tomboy, and Julie Andrews, in the 1965 movie, was the quintessential English nanny, Watkins is a good old-fashioned TV sitcom smart aleck.

"When you were a very little girl, didn't a very little boy kiss you?" asks the enamored Captain Von Trapp (Robert Cuccioli).

"Unn-hunhhhh," sighs Watkins, none too innocently.

As the postulant in 1938 Austria who becomes nanny to, and then mother of, the seven adorable children of a stern naval captain, Watkins seems a bit more lively than anyone about to dedicate her life to the Blessed Virgin ought to be. She doesn't merely sing about laughing "like a brook when it trips and falls," she laughs along with it.

What such a person would be doing in an abbey in the first place is a bit of a puzzle, but then if you question that you might as well question why someone would burst into song on top of a mountain.

Beyond this, the problem of "The Sound of Music" has solved itself. Or rather, time has solved it.

The show, popular on Broadway and sensationally popular as a movie, always had detractors. For these sophisticates, "The Sound of Music" was always exhibit A of corn, of sentimentality, of Broadway and Hollywood pandering to middlebrow taste.

But that was in the 1950s and Sixties, when the values of "The Sound of Music" ruled, and grown-up material had to fight to get a hearing. To critics at that time, "The Sound of Music" was simply The Enemy.

But these days, when the average Britney Spears video shows more undraped flesh than could be seen in any adult movie theater in 1965, the out-of-date, out-of-touch wholesomeness of "The Sound of Music" is kind of refreshing.

And it isn't as sugary as you thought you remembered - largely thanks to Richard Rodgers, who wrote theater songs of a depth and musical sophistication that is unmatched today.

His church music (which must have been a daring way to open a show in 1959) would not be out of place in a real convent; his song "Edelweiss" is probably better than nine-tenths of actual Austrian folk songs. Even cutie-pie numbers like "So Long, Farewell" have interesting, dark things going on in the orchestration that undercut the sweetness. You can hear why a jazz genius like John Coltrane would make "My Favorite Things" one of his signature recordings - not, as some have asserted, because he was making fun of the squares, but because he recognized a great tune when he heard one.

The choral and orchestral renderings in this production, under the direction of Tom Helm, are exceptionally good, and that's half the battle.

Perhaps Meg Bussert, as the mother Abbess, doesn't have quite the richness of tone to make "Climb Every Mountain" soar operatically, but the children (Elizabeth Lundberg, Daniel Plimpton, Krista Pioppi, Nicholas Jonas, Allison Brustofski, Tiffany Giardina, and Caroline London) harmonize together beautifully - no small feat in a show which has them singing a capella on more than one occasion.

The kids are troupers, and director-choreographer James Brennan has come up with some wonderfully inventive dance movements for them during both the "Do-Re-Mi" and "Lonely Goatherd" numbers.

There are even a few adults in the cast capable of stealing the show from the tykes. Notably Ed Dixon, as the freeloading theater impresario (based on Sol Hurok), who has a droll persona and a marvelous way of carrying his weight around as if he owned the stage - which he does during his scenes.

He and Donna English, as a baroness, get to shine in a couple of excellent, lesser-known "Sound of Music" songs that didn't make it to the movie - probably because the cynicism of "How Can Love Survive?" and "No Way to Stop It" (which advises collaboration with the Nazis) might have alarmed the folks in Kansas City.

Cuccioli is a suitably dry and imperious Captain Von Trapp, and Mark Willett is in good voice as the bicycle messenger - though it's too bad that choreographer Brennan didn't give him and Lundberg better steps to do during the "Sixteen Going on Seventeen" number.

Several of the sets by Michael Anania are outstanding, especially the great hall of the Baron's house and Maria's room with its slanting "Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" wall.

"The Sound of Music" will always be around. As that second-act song advises about the Anschluss, there's no way to stop it. And if it's going to be done, it's good that it be mounted with the skill and energy of this Paper Mill production.

ęBergan Record published with permission of The Paper Mill Theatre