'Sound' production

Paper Mill scales Alpine theatrical heights with classic musical

Tuesday, November 04, 2003 BY CHARLES PAIKERT for the Star-Ledger

Paradoxically, the enduring popularity of "The Sound of Music" and the inescapable familiarity of its hit songs are, from an artistic point of view anyway, the biggest hurdles facing yet another production of the Rodgers & Hammerstein classic, especially since a successful revival ran on Broadway just a few years ago.

Perhaps someday, somewhere, somehow, some enterprising director will deconstruct the play and offer audiences a radical interpretation that reveals nuances and dark corners hitherto unseen in the play's long history, the way John Coltrane once reworked "My Favorite Things" from the inside out.

Barring that breakthrough, however, the only way at this point to make "The Sound of Music" work is to pull out all the stops and put on a spectacular Broadway-quality production, replete with dazzling sets, a talented cast of dozens, a superb orchestra and two stars who can sing and act like crazy and really make you believe they weremeant to fall in love.

Miraculously, the current Paper Mill Playhouse production, directed and choreographed by James Brennan, does just that.

The evening's promise and sophistication is signaled by the opening scenes soaring Gothic arch and huge stained-glass window, set against a black background in the abbey, followed by the soft, angelic chanting of nuns.

That hope is quickly confirmed when the set is transformed to a majestic view of the Alps, and Amanda Watkins as the would-be nun Maria sings the familiar title song, confidently putting her own stamp on it, letting us know she's the real thing. She quickly demonstrates she can act as well as she can sing, holding her own with old pro Meg Bussert as the Mother Abbess.

Already propelled by a lovely rendition of "My Favorite Things," the play really soars when Maria meets her new employer, Capt. Georg von
Trapp (Robert Cuccioli), the ex-war hero, strict disciplinarian and grieving widower with seven children. The free-spirited governess and uptight naval officer are completely mismatched, except that of course they aren't.

But it takes real chemistry to convey the deep-seated attraction that must inexorably pull the two together, and there is no doubt Watkins and Cuccioli, a Paper Mill veteran who has also scored a Tony nomination for his Broadway role in "Jekyll & Hyde," have plenty of it. The payoff comes when the two share a dance at a party the dashing captain is throwing for his would-be fiancée. It begins innocently, and remains so on the surface, but Watkins and Cuccioli make it clear that something else is stirring deep within.

Watching Watkins (who bears more than a passing resemblance to a young Katie Couric) transform Maria from a naive girl into a vivacious young woman, in fact, it's hard to believe that she won't soon be duplicating the success Cuccioli has found on Broadway.

While the utterly conventional book seems quite dated now and, even worse, occasionally boring, most of Rodgers & Hammerstein's songs remain joyful and infectious , and never allow the audience's interest in the show to flag for long.

Neither do the terrific supporting cast members, led by Ed Dixon, Donna English and Osborn Focht; designer Michael Anania's spectacular
sets; nor Brennan's lively choreography. The ultimate compliment came from theater-goers, who more than once spontaneously began to clap in rhythm during the rousing musical numbers, a primal reminder of why "The Sound of Music" is performed so often, and deserves, as it is at
the Paper Mill, to be performed well.

©Star Ledger - published with permission of The Paper Mill Theatre