The Sound of Music

Paper Mill: The State Theater of NJ

Millburn, NJ - November 2003

Review by John Kenrick

(The images below are thumbnails – click on them to see larger versions. All the photos below are by Gerry Goodstein, used with permission of Paper Mill)

Amanda Watkins as MariaAmanda Watkins as Maria in Paper Mills 2003 production of The Sound of Music.

Darn that Rodgers and Hammerstein -- they do it to me every time!

I know there are plenty of people who disdain The Sound of Music, and I have long since heard all their arguments against it. Well, I for one am tired of apologizing for my lifelong love of this show. Between its stage and screen incarnations, The Sound of Music has long since proven to be one of the most popular musicals of all time -- and with good reason. For all its supposed sweetness, it handles some serious issues with melody and wit, providing a walloping good story and tons of entertainment. The latest revival at Paper Mill captures all the magic of this beloved classic in a handsome production that is guaranteed to be a highlight in anyone's holiday season.

This production uses the original 1959 Broadway script, with the interpolation of two delightful songs written for the film -- "I Have Confidence" and "Something Good" (replacing "An Ordinary Couple"). To my mind, this is the most effective cut of the material, far better than the film or the more heavily revised stage revivals it has inspired over the years. For example, the opening number has Maria explain that a star has come out to tell her its time to get back to the abbey. The film cut that verse and set the number in blazing mid-afternoon sunshine -- which makes the ringing of the bells for evening prayer seem ludicrous. Inspired by this, many stage productions follow suit, even though they invariably leave in the lyric about the unseen star.

Amanda Watkins and Robert Cuccioli(7790 bytes)Maria (Amanda Watkins) and Captain Von Trapp (Robert Cuccioli) realize they must have done "Something Good" to deserve each other's love.

Veteran Broadway performer James Brennan directs the proceedings with a sure hand. His secret is refreshingly simple -- he trusts Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse's masterful yet underrated libretto. He has Maria sing the title song in twilight, with a single star shining over the mountains behind her. He keeps the action in clear focus, never allowing the show's potentially syrupy aspects to overshadow the moving story that has kept audiences beaming for over forty years. Some of Brennan's choreography looked surprisingly inappropriate, particularly some unnecessary routines given to the children. Subtract those, and this was one of the most intelligent stagings of The Sound of Music I have ever seen.

Michael Anania has provided his usual parade of eye pleasing sets, and Cathleen Edwards' costumes (originally designed for American Musical Theatre of San Jose) capture all the right period looks -- including a knockout 1930's wedding gown that had the audience cooing on opening night. Special tech applause goes to F. Mitchell Dana's lighting and Randy Hansen's naturalistic sound design. And it is always a pleasure to find Tom Helm in the pit -- his flawless musical direction has been the bedrock for many a grand night at Paper Mill, and he is clearly in top form for this production.

The Captain, the kids and MariaCaptain Von Trapp (Robert Cuccioli) and Maria (Amanda Watkins) face off as the younger Von Trapps stand at attention.

Amanda Watkins is a quirky and irresistible Maria, filling the role with an earthy humanity that enriches the entire show.  Robert Cuccioli gets far to little chance to sing as the stalwart Captain Von Trapp, but he is so impossibly handsome that you wonder how any postulant could hope to resist him. Donna English is a lovely and refreshingly sympathetic Elsa Shrader, and Ed Dixon is clearly having a ball as the loveable opportunist Max. Mark Willet is a handsome if somewhat wooden Rolf. You can easily accept that perky Elizabeth Lundberg's Leisl is "sixteen going on seventeen" -- too many of her predecessors have looked old enough to be Maria. As the little Von Trapp's, Daniel Plimpton, Krista Pioppi, Nicholas Jonas, Allison Brustofski, Tiffany Giardina and Caroline London are every bit as adorable as the script requires, without overdoing it. Their enthusiasm and natural charm make "Do-Re-Mi" an all-out showstopper.

Meg BussertMeg Bussert sings "Climb Every Mountain."

As fine as this production is, it is all nearly stolen by Meg Bussert's sensational performance as the Mother Abbess. One of the most gifted musical actresses of our time, this marks her return to the professional stage after almost a decade of teaching. Bussert imbues this often stuffy character with infinite humanity, and her "Climb Every Mountain" is so heartfelt and musically dazzling that it literally gave me goose bumps -- and don't ask me how long its been since anything in a theatre did that! The nuns are all depicted with particular realism and sensitivity, and their choral singing is downright sumptuous. But it is Bussert whose powerful performance commands the audience's attention and sets off the cheers.

If you are one of those who dismiss this show as "The Sound of Mucus," you are welcome to your opinion. However, if you are among the literally hundreds of millions who love The Sound of Music, Paper Mill's current revival will leave you glowing. And if you are anything like me, when Ms. Bussert and company sing the stirring final reprise of "Climb Every Mountain" as the Von Trapps head up a mountainside, you'll find yourself a bit moist around the eyes. If so, just blame it on Rodgers and Hammerstein -- like I said, they can still do it to you.

This limited run ended on Dec. 14th, 2003.

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