The Sound of Music

The Martin Beck Theatre – 5/22/99

Review by John Kenrick

Forgive me, oh mighty gods of the theatre, for I have sinned! I allowed the critics to talk me out of seeing something! I know it was a stupid thing to do, but I did it and I'm sorry and I swear if you forgive me that I'll never, ever do it anymore. (Oh dear, I'm slipping into Goodtime Charley!)

My mother was in town for the weekend with her heart set on seeing Richard Chamberlain in The Sound of Music. Now I have nothing against Mr. Chamberlain, a fine actor (whom I have always found easy on the eyes). However, critics and word of mouth had been overwhelmingly negative about this production, so I was less than enthusiastic about seeing yet another Sound of Music. After all, I've seen more than a dozen productions over the years, from high schools to national tours – what more was left to be done with this show?

To my surprise, the current Sound of Music cast is not only good – it's sensational! One of the best things I've seen in years! (No, I am NOT kidding!) Whatever shortcomings the original cast of this revival had have been gloriously repaired. Richard Chamberlain is perfect as Captain Von Trapp, a role that fits so well it might have been written for him. Aside from a commanding stage presence, he has a fine singing voice and a deft way with a showtune. He is as dashing and attractive as ever, and his love scene with Maria had the audience glowing. How refreshing to see a star deliver the goods, giving an audience all it had hoped for and more.

There's been a lot of talk about the young lady currently playing Maria, but since she was out the night I saw the show I cannot confirm that talk. However, her standby was Meg Tolin, a very talented actress who I've had the pleasure of seeing in the replacement casts of Showboat and Grand Hotel. She was the perfect Maria – feisty, vulnerable and vocally gifted. Her chemistry with the children was so warm and convincing that I almost envied them! I hope to catch this production again soon, and I will probably be the only person in the audience who will not mind the least if the lead is out sick!

(Please note: I went back the following week and saw Laura Benanti as Maria – she was sensational, with a glorious voice and a thoroughly disarming stage presence. She is the kind of performer Broadway once prayed for – talented and beautiful too. If asked to pick between the two, no question: I would insist on seeing both again!)

Jeanne Lehman was perfect as Mother Abbess, and her rendition of "Climb Ev'ry Mountain" left the audience cheering. The kids are usually a problem in The Sound of Music, but this bunch was a delight. They were believable instead of saccharine, and each of their numbers drew a tremendous ovation. "Do Re Mi" literally stopped the show! The standout was Tracy Alison Walsh as a hilariously no-nonsense Brigitta. Jan Sullivan was a refreshingly sympathetic Frau Shraeder, and veteran Danny Wolpe (a longtime favorite of mine) was a suave and loveable Uncle Max. Special note: after the seemingly endless re-hashes of Nunsense, its great to see nuns depicted with their humanity, dignity and humor intact.

Director Susan Shulman (The Secret Garden) deserves a lot of credit for avoiding the sweetness that plagues most productions of this show. She brought a fresh perspective to the material while keeping its creators intentions in mind. The physical production is sumptuous but never overdone, painting a series of lush stage pictures with a minimum of fuss. (Some set-happy Brits could learn a thing or two from this production!) The much-loved score is handled beautifully, from the solos to the choral singing of the nuns.

Yes, it still is a thrill to hear these wonderful songs, and I was very pleased that this production occasionally evoked the vocal arrangements of the real Von Trapp Family Singers – a warm, Tyrolean harmony that the original production and film barely hinted at. The Sound of Music has never looked or sounded better, and I think it is safe to say that Rodgers and Hammerstein would have been delighted with this revival.

There is a special, soul-deep satisfaction I get from seeing a classic Broadway musical performed well, and it has been quite a while since I last had that feeling. The 90’s revivals of Gypsy and Guys and Dolls gave me that feeling – this Sound of Music did too. I walked in a skeptic and wound up on my feet cheering with the rest of the audience. My mom had such a ball that she actually went into the street singing – something she has never done before! She turned into a theatre buff right before my unbelieving eyes!

If you want to see a great musical at its best, or if you want to understand what people like me are talking about when we say today's mega-musicals are missing something important called "heart," give yourself the genuine pleasure of seeing the current Sound of Music. And don't be surprised if I’m sitting next to you!

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