RECORDER NEWSPAPERS review        Thursday, November 06, 2003

“See ‘The Sound of Music’ at Paper Mill

by Allen Crossett, Drama Critic

Seeing the production of The Sound of Music now at Paper Mill Playhouse is like the extraordinary experience of enjoying the show for the very first time. It is difficult to believe that this musical, Rodgers and Hammerstein's final collaboration, with book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, debuted in Broadway in 1959 and today can still be so fresh.

Much of the credit for making this such a wonderful offering is the performance of Amanda Watkins in the role of Maria. The show opens with the Nuns at Nonnberg Abbey in Austria singing "Preludium," and then the scene widens to reveal the towering Alps, and alone on stage Maria sings the title song.

Here is a most important moment when the actress playing Maria must establish a positive rapport with the audience immediately, and there is no chorus to back her up, no razzle-dazzle dialogue, only the scenery and the music. And from the moment she finishes the first phrase, everyone in the audience realizes Amanda Watkins is perfect for the part.

There is a personality here that bubbles forth, a smile that warms the mountains, and as the story unfolds, and this beautiful free-thinking aspiring nun leaves the abbey to become the governess for seven young children, we see that she can ever so naturally not only understand others and but can also earn their love. She's beautiful, and she's spunky, and we love her.

These seven children are also quite magnificent, ranging in age from 16 ("Going on Seventeen") to about five, and they are on stage much of the time. Their musical numbers, often performed with Maria but sometimes with their father, Captain Georg von Trapp, include many of the show's best-known songs. "Do-Re-Mi," "The Lonely Goatherd," and "So Long, Farewell" are among their highlights.

Robert Cuccioli, a Paper Mill favorite, returns in the role of the widower Captain von Trapp. There is a severity about this character and a stiffness that can easily be understood when one realizes von Trapp was once the captain of a navy ship. This actor is a strong romantic lead, and he plays well against the gentleness of Maria.

Also strong are Donna English in the role of Elsa Schraeder, a wealthy corporate power who has designs on the captain, and Ed Dixon, who brings some comedy to the show as music festival planner Max Detweiler. Meg Bussert is also excellent as the Mother Abbess.

Michael Anania's sets are strikingly beautiful, whether we are seeing a backdrop of the Alps, the interior splendor of the von Trapp villa, or the beauty of the Abbey's chapel where the Captain and Maria eventually marry. And Tom Helm's musical direction brings a special power to this beloved score.

Especially important is James Brennan's vision, for here is a director who delights in the details, and again and again a scene is enriched by something as seemingly simple as a perfectly timed pause, or turn, or glance. Emotion runs high in this show so you'll want to bring along a handkerchief.

Because The Sound of Music has been so popular for so long, there are now sing-along productions and movie showings where audiences attend costumed as such things as "brown paper packages tied up in strings" or "warm woolen mittens." This production is clearly not such an occasion.

Paper Mill is offering a magnificent revival of this classic American musical. And while there are some mature themes resonating here, including the Nazi occupation of Austria, the show is appropriate for the entire family.

 "The Sound of Music" will be staged through Sunday, Dec. 14 at The Paper Mill Playhouse, Millburn. Tickets are $67 to $30. For showtimes and ticket information, call (973) 376-4343.

 ©Recorder News published with permission of The Paper Mill Theatre