An authentic musical classic

Wednesday, November 12, 2003

By THOM MOLYNEAUX

The moneys back on stage!


The small-cast, low-budget season-opener, Ain't Misbehavin had Paper Mill Playhouse regulars fearing that new management might be taking a Wal-Mart approach to musical theater production. Fear no more! With The Sound of Music, the checkbook is open and Paper Mill is back to Saks Fifth Avenue.

The Playhouse may have had big budget problems but the big budgets were always right up there on stage; the audience could see, hear and thoroughly enjoy the big bucks spent on sets and costumes and top talent. The Sound of Music that's just opened at the theater in Millburn, is definitely and delightfully in that high-cost, high-quality tradition.

This first-class production, directed and choreographed by James Brennan, clearly demonstrates why the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical is a musical theater classic. Starting with Mary Martin, music and lyrics by two legendary talents, a book by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwrights, Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, and a heart-warming, true story at its base, the original production proved to be a near perfect storm of talent and material. It went on to become phenomenally successful in the United States and worldwide as both a play and film. It also, along the way, picked up the reputation of being saccharine and cloying.

During filming of the movie, Christopher Plummer referred to it as The Sound of Mucus. Now, the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic certainly needs no defense from me but this PMP production is a wonderful reminder of why The Sound of Music is one of the truly original and creative American musicals and why saccharine and cloying is a dyspeptic distortion of a sweet and charming serious musical drama.

Maria, the postulant from the nearby abbey, who becomes the governess for the seven children of a widowed naval officer isn't a cliché fairy tale princess-to-be or a miracle-making Mary Poppins, but a naïve, strong, vulnerable, loving, and some times troubled, young woman. All of those qualities are captured in the fresh and feisty, unhackneyed performance of Amanda Watkins. She also sings beautifully and even manages to dispel the ghost of Julie Andrews that hovers over most performances of Maria.

Captain Georg von Trapp, the stern, closed-off widower, isn't a typical musical comedy hero, either, and in PMP regular, Robert Cuccioli's almost effortlessly, truthful performance, comes across as a strong, quiet man of high integrity.

Watkins and Cuccioli have established a nice chemistry. When they are doing a folk dance together, we can read on their faces, (without their emoting or pushing) the sudden awareness that they are falling in love, and when Maria confronts the Captain on his relationship with his children, it is as emotional and as powerful a realization of that scene as I've ever seen.

Although few of us would have any trouble humming or singing snatches of My Favorite Things, Do-Re-Me or Climb Every Mountain, this production reminds us that some of the most pleasing musical moments in The Sound of Music come in songs titled Preludium, Gaudeamus Domino, Confitemini Domino and Alleluia. Latin liturgical hymns, beautifully sung by the nuns at the Paper Mill Abbey, aren't the kind of songs the Broadway fraternity sticks into a formula musical.

The Sound of Music isn't formula or saccharine; it is simply an authentic classic. Let me briefly note some other first-rate contributions to this first-class production: Michael Ananias elegant, evocative and fluid sets, the powerful show-stopping performance of Climb Every Mountain by the wonderful Meg Bussert, the pitch-perfect portrait of the glowing 16-year-old Lisel von Trapp by the vivacious Elizabeth Lundberg, the fine work of the six young actors playing the other von Trapp children, and the two somewhat older actors, Donna English and Ed Dixon as Elsa Schrader and Max Detweiler.

In what's becoming a standard move, this production adds the lovely ballad, Something Good from the film version to its musical score. Two other smart moves the movie made that future stage productions might emulate are having My Favorite Things sung to comfort the children instead of as a duet with the Mother Abbess, and making a stronger symbolic connection between edelweiss, the alpine flower, and recently conquered Austria. That connection would add dramatic resonance to the Captains rendition of Edelweiss and its prayer to bless our homeland forever to an audience of his fellow Austrians and to us.

Of course, the best move for Paper Mill theatergoers is the big Broadway musical moving back to the Millburn stage.

The Sound of Music plays through Dec. 14 at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn. For tickets and information, call the box office at
(973) 376-4343, or visit online at www.papermill.org.

©MontclairTimes - published with permission of The Paper Mill Theatre