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Thursday, November 06, 2003

 

A ‘Sound of Music’ worthy of another look

 

"The Sound of Music''? Right. Like you really need to see that again.

 

   And yet you do have to see it again … in a major production at the Paper Mill Playhouse … or else you'll miss Amanda Watkins' fresh and exciting recreation of the familiar character Maria Von Trapp.

 

   Not that that's all there is to this presentation of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic, but Watkins uses her considerable skills and her natural charm to make the familiar new.

 

   The storyline of this piece is certainly familiar to the bulk of Paper Mill's demographic: Maria, a postulant in an Austrian abbey, takes a job outside the walls so that she can reevaluate her religious vocation. The job is caring for the seven children of a naval hero, Capt. Georg Von Trapp, whose stern heart Maria softens enough that the two eventually are wed.

 

   Watkins plays Maria, whose superior suggests the hiatus, as a  young woman … a girl, really … who is nearly exploding with life. She expresses her exuberance with an animation she must strain to control and with a sense of humor just sassy enough to explain why the nuns muse over ""a problem like Maria.'' It's hard to imagine an actress being more effective in the part.

 

   Watkins makes the girl's vitality infectious and by Scene 5, when she sings ""Do Re Mi'' with the children … with an abandon that clearly shows the hand of director James Brennan … she has the audience for keeps. But her performance doesn't lack for drama, and she effectively project's Maria's fear, confusion and vulnerability before dressing the character in self-confidence and independence once her personal choices have been made.

 

   By contrast, Robert Cuccioli plays Von Trapp … a man depressed since the death of his wife … in a markedly understated manner. Cuccioli has just the bearing for a ship's officer, but he holds back the firepower he has displayed in other roles until Von Trapp is confronted in his own home with partisans of the Nazi regime that is about to absorb Austria into the Third Reich.

 

   There is a palpable chemistry between Watkins and Cuccioli, as Georg and Maria recognize and finally reveal their feelings for each other.

 

   The Von Trapp children are a talented aggregation who do justice to the dialogue, song, dance and spirit of this work. Especially notable is Elizabeth Lundberg as Liesl … the oldest of the kids. Lundberg has all the appeal of girl-going-on-woman, and she sings and dances with grace and spirit. Her dancing in the ballet to ""Sixteen Going on Seventeen'' is a model of sweetness and romance.

 

   Meg Bussert is endearing as the mother abbess, and she has a thrilling voice. The ensemble of nuns adds the appropriate mix of reverence and humor and sings like a choir of angels. Ed Dixon puts his own delightful stamp on the character of Max Detweiler, the impresario who books the singing Von Trapps at a  1938 music festival, and Donna English plays Elsa Schraeder … Georg's short-term fiancee … without the hard edge that often

makes her appeal to Georg hard to accept.

 

   If there's a flaw in this tapestry, it comes in the form of the Nazis, who were an annoying bunch, to be sure, but not in the way they are played here. Osborn Focht as Herr Zeller … a functionary of the Reich who is openly antagonistic toward Capt. Von Trapp … earns whatever the penalty is for overacting. And in the climactic scene in which the Von Trapps begin their escape from Austria by abruptly leaving the music festival, the pursuing Germans appear to be working for Mack Sennett rather than Adolph Hitler.

 

   Michael Anania's fluid, multiple sets combine with F.Mitchell Dana's moody lighting to make this a first-rate revival of a timeless show.

 

©Home News Tribune published with permission of The Paper Mill Theatre