The Sound of Music creates grand, glorious theatre

By LIZ KEILL



Audiences seem entranced with "The Sound of Music," from its solemn  scene in Nonnberg Abbey to the Alps and the home of Baron Von Trapp.

But it isnt the setting so much as the singing and that Rodgers and Hammerstein score that transport the patrons. Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn has re-created the original Broadway production in a way that seems fresh and new.

Certainly, the beloved movie with Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer and real Austrian scenery is hard to beat. But this version has a charm, an intimacy of its own. Amanda Watkins as Maria brings her own spontaneous, vibrant approach to the young governess who wins over the love of Captain George von Trapp. Robert Cuccioli displays a wonderful dignity as the captain and his soft, appealing reprise of "The Sound of Music" in Act I is stunning. Its the moment when he realizes he has distanced himself from his children, cutting off all joy and spontaneity in their lives. His brief rendering of "and Ill sing, once more," is heart-stopping.

Then, of course, those adorable children traipse across the stage. Applause is loudest whenever theyre present. And they are a servedly talented group. Elizabeth Lundberg as Liesl is especially enchanting with "Sixteen Going on Seventeen." Daniel Plimpton is Friedrich von Trapp, Krista Pioppi is Louisa, Allison Brustofski is Kurt, Tiffany Giardina is Marta and Caroline London is Gretl.

But others in the cast make this show work, too, with contrasts that bring the almost saccharine world of "Do-Re-Mi" and "My Favorite Things," back to an adult level in this terrifying time in the Nazis advance from Germany to Austria. Donna English as Elsa Schraeder makes a striking fiancee to the captain and her duet with Max Detweiler, played with flourish by Ed Dixon, "No Way to Stop It," suddenly dramatizes the reality that everyone is avoiding. "How Can Love Survive" is another number sung by Max, Elsa and the Captain, that gives the play a sophisticated edge. Both numbers were eliminated from the movie version.

The nuns, of course, have their somber moments, especially Meg Bussert as the Mother Abbess in her "Climb Every Mountain" finale that closes both Act I and Act II. (Its this musicals version of "Youll Never Walk Alone" from "Carousel," another Rodgers and Hammerstein hit.) A few hijinks are in order from the sisters, which again contrasts nicely with the more pious moments.

Director James Brennan has struck a fine balance between sweetness and somber moments, never letting the play fall into a syrupy, cute production. Once again, Michael Ananias sets take us from countryside to a palatial home to the abbeys cemetery. Costumes by Gail Baldoni hit all the right notes, with an especially appealing wedding scene and Elsas ravishing wine red ball gown.

What more could you ask? Glorious music, a plot that is based on a real-life escape as war clouds gather in 1938 and fine singers and actors to bring it all alive. "The Sound of Music" continues at the Paper Mill Playhouse through Dec.14. For tickets, call 973-376-4343.

ŠThe Independent Press published with permission of The Paper Mill Theatre