'Sound of Music' hits all the right notes

By William Westhoven, Special to the Daily Record

"Ain't Misbehavin'," the first production of the 2003-04 season at  the Paper Mill Playhouse, drew mixed reviews and rumblings from some subscribers complaining that the production value was a little thin by Paper Mill standards. No such criticisms should be heard about "The Sound of Music," which opened last week.

This production has most of what theatergoers expect from the Paper Mill: elaborate sets, beautiful music, a deep, talented cast and just enough star power to get your attention. Toss in the theater's uncanny ability to generate consistently terrific performances from child actors, and they've got another hit on their hands, and a perfect way for patrons to ease their way into the holiday spirit, humming their way home with visions of the upcoming "Nutcracker" dancing in their heads.

Still, any production of "The Sound of Music" must deal with the demon of history, namely the indelible imprint made by the Tony-winning Broadway original and the definitive, Oscar-winning film. James Brennan, who directed Paper Mill's memorable (and PBS-televised) production of "Crazy For You" a few years back, has the experience to bear the weight of great expectations, here as both director and choreographer. So does leading man Robert Cuccioli, a familiar face to Broadway, Paper Mill and even Shakespeare Festival of New Jersey audiences, who believably transforms Capt. Von Trapp from a cold paternal dictator to an idealistic, sensitive and picture-perfect (not to mention pitch-perfect) dad.

The tougher assignment goes to Amanda Watkins, who, as Maria, must exorcise the ghosts of Mary Martin and Julie Andrews before claiming ownership of the role. She may not have quite accomplished this suicidal mission, but it would be unfair to ask for much more from any actress than she gives. Watkins has a lovely voice, but her low-key delivery of the title song, which introduces the character, leaves you wondering if she has the goods. She later proves she can belt out a big note when she has to, but she missed out on her chance to hit the ground running.

Otherwise, she is a marvelous Maria. Unlike some productions, which deify her with the glow of childlike innocence, this Maria has a goofy, self-effacing charm that makes her more human and more enjoyable to watch. Her connection to the Austrian land, and the mountains, is emphasized to the point where she actually climbs the mountain on resident scenic designer Michael Anania's colorful set.

Watkins and Cuccioli also have an obvious chemistry, while Ed Dixon, as Von Trapp's friend Max, and Donna English, as Von Trapp's fiancée Frau Schraeder, contribute their own supportive chemistry.

Then there's the children. While a poor performance by Maria can wreck a production, a bad group of kids can make the evening a long, slow wreck. But the Paper Mill has once again found some pint-size ringers - seven of them, to be exact - that raise the level of this production from good to great. No matter how many times "Do-Re-Mi" is reprised (I lost count), you never tire of them. A surprising highlight of the first act, which at 90 minutes is a show in itself, is the scene in Maria's bedroom, when she and the kinder chorus drown out a thunderstorm singing "The Lonely Goatherd."

And let's not tempt retribution by overlooking the choir of nuns from the Austrian abbey that must solve the how-do-you-solve-a-problem-like "Maria" dilemma. Mother Abbess (Meg Bussert) and sisters Berthe, Margaretta and Sophia (Gina Ferrall, Jessica Mary Murphy, Joyce Campana) present this delightful debate, but also join with eight other nuns to open the show with a moving choral performance, "Preludium," and return for the elaborate wedding of Maria and the captain.

Bussert, of course, gets the show-stopping closer to Act 1, "Climb Every Mountain," and the Tony award nominee (for "Brigadoon") raises the roof, bringing the audience to its feet in the process.

If you've already seen a big-budget production of "The Sound of Music" - and there have been plenty of those - you may not be bowled over by this one, but I don't think you will be disappointed. As for those of you who have only seen the movie, and never experienced the magic of "The Sound of Music" onstage, what are you waiting for?

©The Daily Record publisihed with permission of The Paper Mill Theatre