A Review

Something (Very) Good

By R. J. Donovan

Hills or not, Waltham is alive at the moment with "The Sound of Music," courtesy of Reagle Music Theatre.  Directed by Larry Sousa, the production is thoroughly charming, warm and funny (and at one point, meltingly romantic), with outstanding performances throughout.

Music is by Richard Rodgers, lyrics are by Oscar Hammerstein II, with a book from Howard Lindsay and Russell Crouse

Is there anyone who doesn't know the classic story, set in 1939 in the mountains of Austria against a backdrop of simmering political change.  At its center is Maria, a free bird of a young novice, challenged by the rigid rules of the convent and her impending future as a nun.  She's always late, misses her prayers, can't abide by her vow of silence and sneaks off to the mountains to sing. 

When the Mother Abbess senses the young girl may need a change to get a perspective on her true calling, Maria is sent to become temporary governess to the motherless von Trapp children -- who have a way of disposing of their nannies quickly and efficiently, often via tricks and toads. Maria enters this new world only to find love and a life she never envisioned.

As Maria, Sarah Pfisterer (above), sings like the proverbial "lark" in the title song.  A longtime Reagle favorite, Sarah has been seen on Broadway in a variety of high profile roles, but she's found a happy summer home at Reagle over the past few years, appearing in everything from "The Music Man" to "Beauty & The Beast."  She makes a lovely Maria, singing with heart, struggling with the challenges of her vows, and ultimately falling in love with the father of her wards.

In one of her first tests, Maria teaches the children to sing, bringing music back into a house that's been silenced since the death of the Captain's wife. Sarah is particularly endearing in her scenes with the children.  They resist her at first, just as they've done with all their nannies. However, they soon warm up to her. You truly believe she loves these kids and connects with them completely

As the widowed Captain von Trapp, Patrick Cassidy (at left) is making his Reagle debut and one can only hope he'll become a regular member of the Waltham family as well.  As von Trapp, he runs his home like a factory, calling for both his children and his staff with a blow of a bosun's whistle. Cassidy is charming but stern, with dashing matinee good looks and a subtle way with a funny line.

Von Trapp is set to be wed to a Baroness, and Maria is there only to care for the children.  However, an unsettling spark occurs between them, causing Maria to flee the estate and return to the sheltered walls of the convent.  She is persuaded to return to the family by the Mother Abbess, if only for the sake of the children.

By the time Maria returns, things have soured with the Baroness.  The Captain and Maria discover their true feelings for each other in the number "An Ordinary Couple" (at left), which, thanks to Sousa's thoughtful staging and the two sensitive performances from the principals, builds to a moment that's so romantic it brings a lump to your throat.  When the couple closes in for an embrace and a kiss, you can almost hear the audience draw a collective breath ( . . . despite the fact that you knew these two were going to wind up together all along).

Although the family story is now warm and settled, conflict still exists. The Germans are not only taking over Austria but pressuring the Captain to join them.  He wants nothing to do with this, of course, but fears for the safety of his family.  So when the children are entered into a singing contest, thanks to Maria's lessons and their own given talents, an opportunity is envisioned for their escape.  As we all know, thanks to the clever staging of their musical number, they disappear amidst the applause and flee over the mountains to freedom -- again, a moment that touches the heart.  

The children at Reagle are a fine group, ranging from Gillian Gordon as Liesel, the "Sixteen Going On Seventeen" young lady, to Emma Schaufus as young Gentl, who melts your heart when she says she may not be able to sing due to a sore finger.  The rest in between include: Andrew Purdy as Friedrich, Isabelle Miller as Louisa, Troy Costa (who was wonderful last season as Young Patrick in "Mame") as Kurt, Victoria Blanchard as Brigitta, and Natalie Hall as Marta.  

James Forbes Sheehan sings with a strong voice as Rolf, wooing Liesel; Linda Lodi is all spit and polish as Frau Schmidt, running the von Trapp household with a tight first; and Rick Sherberne is the preening producer Max Detweiler.

A stand out in the cast is Jenny Lynn Stewart as the Mother Abbess. Her soaring delivery of "Climb Every Mountain" is breathtaking, earning a thunderous ovation that continued long after the scene went to black.

As always at Reagle, the chorus (here, nuns and neighbors) is filled with talent. Kudos to Robert J. Eagle, Reagle's Executive Producer / Artistic Director for once again delivering the kind of first-rate production for which Reagle has become renowned.

The score is filled with wonderful moments, ranging from Maria's feisty "I Have Confidence" to the charming "So Long, Farewell" and the iconic "Edelweiss" which Cassidy delivers with swelling pride for his homeland.  The religious hymns sung by the nuns are beautifully executed, firmly adding an authenticity to the convent scenes.

Based on the true story of Maria von Trapp and the von Trapp Family Singers,  the stage musical took a few liberties with the plot, changing the names of some of the children and compressing the story somewhat.  In truth, several years passed between the time Maria and the Captain married and they were forced to escape. And (sorry to rain on the parade), they didn't trudge over the mountains as nuns sang in the distance.  They traveled by train to Italy ( . . . eventually coming to the United States and winding up in Vermont).

The original production, opening on Broadway in 1959, starred Mary Martin as Maria and Theodore Bikel as von Trapp. Of course, it's the 1965 film version that's given a long life to the story. Julie Andrews starred as Maria with Christopher Plummer as the brooding Captain.  Again, changes came with the film, mostly involving the musical numbers.  A couple of songs were dropped and others were moved around.

In the stage version, "My Favorite Things" is sung very early in the show, before Maria even leaves the convent and meets the children. In this particular scene, Mother Abbess claims the tune was one of her favorites as a girl and chimes right in.  In the film, Maria sings the song to divert the fears of the children during a thunderstorm -- which makes far more sense.

On stage, "The Lonely Goatherd" is sung during that thunderstorm scene rather than with marionettes at the party welcoming The Baroness.

As well, "Do-Re-Mi" on stage is a rousing anthem sung in the von Trapp living room as Maria teaches the children their scales. The film, as we all know, expands the song to take the singing lesson throughout the city of Salzburg. It's aided by the spectacular scenery, which, like the sweeping panoramas of the film's opening sequence, could never have been accomplished on stage.

And that, perhaps, may be the point.  As wonderful as the film is, the stage version must rely on the charm of its story and the strength of its performances. At Reagle it does exactly that, with great heart, allowing the true spirit of the story to "sing once more."

"The Sound of Music" is at Robinson Theatre through August 14. For information, call 781- 891-5600.

Production photos: Herb Philpott

-- OnStage Boston




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