WORRALL NEWSPAPERS review by Bill Van Sant - Thursday, November 6, 2003

 

‘Sound of Music’ is breathtaking

 

Living down the saccharine reputation created by the 1965 film, “The Sound of Music” at Paper Mill: The State Theater of New Jersey is as fresh and crisp as a gust of Alpine air.

 

And at the center of this excellent production is the thoroughly delightful Amanda Watkins, who imbues Maria with a spunky feistiness not often associated with the role since the “veddy proper” Julie Andrews filled the screen with refined sweetness.

 

On stage through Dec. 14, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s well-loved musical is given a mature and canny treatment by director James Brennan, who subtly underscores the tension in the script by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse.

 

From the first time we see her, Watkins delivers a solid and complex performance, delicately allowing her Maria to grow from a scrappy waif in a habit to a fully realized woman without sacrificing any of the character’s passion. Whether singing about the wonder of nature’s music, opening her heart to the children, protesting that she can’t face Capt. Georg von Trapp again, or finally giving in to her love for the man, she is everything the role should be.

 

As von Trapp, Paper Mill favorite Robert Cuccioli layers a defensive sternness over the character’s vulnerability, making for a compelling performance. When he allows himself to be moved by the children’s singing, it is a multi-faceted and truly effective moment.

 

Meg Bussert brings a humanity to the role of Mother Abbess that beautifully balances the stage. Early on, she mentions that she, too, was raised on the same mountain as Maria, and the actress deftly incorporates this detail into her performance, adding a further bond between herself and the girl. This humanity lays the groundwork for the Act I finale, “Climb Every Mountain,” making for a singularly unforgettable moment of theater.

 

Donna English and the wonderful Ed Dixon add much to this production as Elsa Schraeder and Max Detweiler, von Trapp’s fiancee and friend, respectively. It’s their two numbers — “How Can Love Survive?” and “No Way to Stop It,” both cut from the film — that add much of the intelligence and bite to the script. English combines a mixture of tough and delicate into Elsa, while Dixon is at his irascible best as the effete Max.

 

The seven von Trapp children are, as can be expected, show-stoppers, most notably Elizabeth Lundberg as the burgeoning Liesl and Nicholas Jonas as Kurt, whose bell-like soprano voice beautifully carries the solo line in the “Sound of Music” reprise near the end of Act I.

 

Also outstanding are Joy Franz as the stern housekeeper Frau Schmidt and Jessica Mary Murphy as the delightful Sister Margaretta.

 

The technical elements support this production ably, with Michael Anania’s exquisite sets evoking the Old World beautifully and F. Mitchell Dana’s lighting design adding much to the tone and mood of the show. Costumes by Cathleen Edwards also contribute to the overall polish, most notably English’s breathtaking wardrobe as Elsa.

 

Tom Helm’s musical direction is best showcased in the subtle use of incidental music and the exquisite vocals of the nuns, most notably the “Rex admirabilis” passage of “Preludium” and the Act II canticle.

 

Brennan’s directorial touch is light but sure, maintaining the dramatic thread and pacing under all those songs. Simple touches serve to drive home the humanity of the piece, whether it’s Sister Margaretta’s tears at Maria’s wedding or the presence of Nazi guards on the von Trapp terrace, a moment late in the show that was almost frightening.

 

We’ve all seen “The Sound of Music” dozens of times, whether on stage or screen. Area theatergoers would be wise to up that count by one and take in this truly magnificent production! The hills of Millburn are alive with outstanding theater!

 

© Worrall News published with permission of The Paper Mill Theatre