by Kevin Connell · November 2, 2003
Honestly, it took about 30 minutes for the Paper Mill’s production of The Sound of Music to settle and breathe deeply enough to let me into the experience. It wasn’t until Scene Eight when Captain von Trapp, played by Robert Cuccioli, sings for the first time with his children, that the play began to reveal its deeper layers. The Captain’s simple gesture of song reflects what continually draws me into The Sound of Music, healing gestures that free a loving human spirit and seem to beat all odds. Thankfully, I was wrapped once again in the arms of this tale of an aspiring nun turned governess (Maria Rainer), who restores harmony to the von Trapp Family before the Nazi Anschluss forces them to flee their beloved homeland.
Cuccioli is perfectly Austrian in stature and arrogance as the Captain. His transformation from the repressed Naval officer void of feeling towards his family, to the sensitive father, husband and loyalist towards his homeland, is quite effective and moving. His performance is definitely subtle, possibly too subtle at times, but I never questioned the thought process of his journey, and for the first time (having seen five previous productions) I seemed to be watching the musical unfold through the eyes of Captain von Trapp, not Maria.
James Brennan’s direction is slick at times and a bit by the numbers, but ultimately he taps into the life of the story illuminating an experience in the theatre that is often moving and entertaining. I wished for simpler staging that allowed the actors to more honestly experience the arch of each moment. I also wished that Michael Anania had executed a simpler set design that inspired simpler staging. For instance, Maria’s opening song on the mountainside near the abbey is awkwardly performed on a large rocky set piece, leaving a vast open (yet beautifully lit) empty stage unused. This does not help Amanda Watkins, who plays Maria, to soar with the music as indicated by the song. In contrast, the chorus of nuns who sing the production’s opening “Preludium” most effectively resonate their heavenly tones in a cavernous dark empty space illuminated only by light through an impressively hung stained glass window. It is in moments such as this that Brennan and Anania are most effective.
Watkins is unfortunately at the mercy of the rock for the entirety of her opening number, which stifles the beginning of her emotional journey. It is also unfortunate that Tom Helm’s musical direction, which seemed to rush the actress, particularly in Act I, denied her of the right to command her thought process in both “The Sound of Music” and “My Favorite Things.” Far too often Watkins had to look into the pit to secure that she was in sync with the orchestra, which I found distracting. Fortunately, she was able to find her stride and transcend this obstacle. At first Watkins seems a bit too young for the role, but by the beginning of Act II she unveils the deeper layers of the character that clearly illuminate why she was given the gift of casting. This is certainly the first of many Marias in her career.
As the Baroness Elsa Schraeder, Donna English is wonderfully elegant. She is more misunderstood as the woman of privilege and wealth than a “rich-bitch” dismissing and devouring all in her path. She relies on grace and pride to guide her choices, avoiding the trappings of what could be a spoiled and unsympathetic character. Ed Dixon’s Max Detweiler is less effective as Elsa’s compatriot, self-consciously delivering one-liners and casually walking through the performance.
As the Mother Abbess, Meg Bussert lives in the unconditional love of a mother and a friend, beautifully mentoring Maria with the wisdom of a sage. Unfortunately, the gesticulation of Helm’s conducting completely upstages Meg Bussert’s incredibly moving “Climb Every Mountain.
All in all, it’s an overproduced piece of theatre, but the story prevails primarily due to the integrity of the actors' performances and the unforgettable score by Richard Rodgers & Oscar Hammerstein II. It’s certainly an enjoyable experience for the entire family. For those who have never seen The Sound of Music, this is a competent rendering of a timeless classic, which continues to resonate, especially today as we experience a world in conflict.
© NY Theatre.Com published with permission of The Paper Mill Theatre