Stratford Festival's 'The Sound of Music' better than the movie

Stratford Festival - The Sound of Music

By: Christina Strynatka

5 Stars (Out of 5) 

Tell any regular attendee of the Stratford Festival that you're seeing a  production, and the reaction is usually a breathy sigh of envy. The woman has a remarkable talent for being able to make any play stupendously fun and exciting to watch, and "The Sound of Music", which opened May 26 at the Festival Theatre, is no different. Comparisons to Mary Martin and Julie Andrews are inevitable and understandable, but the second Stephanie Rothenberg starts singing "The Sound of Music" by a tree in the mountains, with a voice that's clean and clear and pure, she stakes a strong line in the sand as her own Maria.

The rest of the two and a half hours only crystallize Rothenberg's Maria, a nunnery postulant who, through the magic of singing, transforms the von Trapp family during the time of Austria's Anschluss, as a young woman who finds inner strength by tackling her doubts and insecurities. Going over the plot is a needless exercise because it's so familiar, especially when the magic of this Stratford Festival production lies in its cast. From the littlest charmer in Gretl von Trapp (a hugely adorable Zoë Brown) to the quietly powerful Mother Abbess (Anita Krause, whose stunning voice in "Climb Ev'ry Mountain" induces serious chills), the actors in this play create an enticing combination of playfulness, depth and fun.

There aren't enough superlatives to describe all the aspects in "The Sound of Music", whether it's Michael Gianfrancesco's creative and quick-changing design taking us to the Austrian alps or Michael Walton (lighting design) and Peter McBoyle (sound design) acting as a seamlessly perfect complement to "The Sound of Music" orchestra. Their behind-the-scenes work sets the stage — no pun intended — for the actors to inhabit a play that Feore described in the playbill as one that aims to move deeply.

The singing is of incredible quality throughout "The Sound of Music", starting with the nuns' spine-tingling "Preludium" in the beginning, arcing up with children and "So Long, Farewell" and the Mother Abbess's "Climb Ev'ry Mountain", and finishing crisply with the von Trapp family (Liesl: Alexandra Herzog; Friedrich: Sean Dolan; Louisa: Effie Honeywell; Kurt: Alec Dahmer; Brigitta: Graci Leahy; Marta: Sarah DaSilva; Gretle: Brown)'s concert performance at the Kaltzberg Festival. Liesl's telegram-delivering beau, Rolf (Gabriel Antonacci) is strong all through "Sixteen Going On Seventeen", while Max (Shane Carty) and Elsa (Robin Evan Willis)'s voices blend together beautifully. Although they didn't sing, the Schuhplattler Dancers (Matt Alfano, Matthew Armet, Chad McFadden, Jason Sermonia) hopped and kicked so entertainingly, they almost defied you not to grin while performing Feore's energetic choreography.

At the heart of the play, though, are Maria and Captain von Trapp (Ben Carlson), whose evolving relationship showcases the best-situation-possible effects of two opposites together. Carlson, whose experience includes roles as Hamlet, Brutus and Octavius with the Stratford Festival, brings just the right touch to his character, a man whose protective outer shell desperately needs piercing in order to regain his old self. Maria, as in performances past, is just the woman to do it, and Rothenberg delivers innocence, firmness and persuasion in all the correct doses.

There's nothing saccharine or clichéd about her performance — especially not with the incredible singing she sprinkles around like fairy dust — as she reaches inside herself to show how her own journey helps transform her relationship with the Captain. The chemistry between them is genuine, and when they pause after dancing the Ländler and nervously tilt closer by the gazebo, it almost feels like watching a real-life couple in the earliest stages of figuring out their attraction for each other. It helps that the veteran Carlson is able to reach deep inside and pull out a truly authentic sense of vulnerability, showing us the internal struggles he grapples with; when he tenderly sings "Edelweiss", his pains and aims are never more clearly contained than in this one burst of emotion.

If Feore's name at Stratford hasn't yet become synonymous with excellence, "The Sound of Music" will cement that. It's a play with marvellously rich singing, choreography that's fun to watch and yet never too complex for the youngest performers to master, and a standout effort from everyone. And by the time the finale ultimo of "Climb Ev'ry Mountain" rolls around and the audience starts clapping in time to the music, you'll have forgotten entirely that there was ever a musical and movie that came before.


BWW Review: A Star is Born in Stratford's THE SOUND OF MUSIC

Alan Henry

5 Stars (Out of 5)

It's rare that you walk out of a show knowing you've witnessed history - and that is just what those seeing The Sound of Music at The Stratford Festival will be experiencing. Stratford's staging of the classic show, by director/choreographer Donna Feore will be talked about for years to come.

Stephanie Rothenberg, who stars in only The Sound of Music this season, is making her Stratford debut. She shines as Maria and brings an emotional depth to the character that is reminiscent of Julie Andrews' portrayal in the film that is also unique in a special way. Vocally, she is world class and I doubt you'd be able to find a more heartwarming and satisfying rendition of the title song anywhere. She has a star quality that is indescribable, and her Maria is incredibly energetic (she manages to outshine the adorable children) and likable.

Rothenberg is of course no stranger to the spotlight, having performed opposite both Daniel Radcliffe and Nick Jonason Broadway in the most recent revival of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. She's a true star in the making, and I'm sure we'll be hearing about her continued success soon.

Ben Carlson is everything you'd expect from Captain Von Trapp, though like his co-star - his portrayal is more likable than I've ever seen it done before. Carlson doesn't go for the standard robotic portrayal of the Captain and instead realistically embodies his grief for his dead wife. This makes the Captains early second act personality change far more believable.

Anita Krause is a standout as the Mother Abbess. She has a fun personality which translates well on stage during "Favourite Things" - which unlike the film is a duet between the Mother Abbess and Maria in the stage show. Her "Climb Ev'ry Mountain" and its reprise as the end of the show will leave tears in your eyes. As expected, her singing is phenomenal.

Shane Carty plays Max Detweiller to great effect and makes for a great scene partner to Robin Evan Willis' easily despised Elsa Schraeder. The children are all perfectly cast, full of energy, and excellent performers. They are Alexandra Herzog (Liesl) Zoë Brown, Sean DolanAlec DahmerEffie Honeywell , Graci Leahy, and Sarah DaSilva.

Musical director Laura Burton leads the orchestra at each performance, and since they perform from above the stage in a "loft"- they are expertly amplified into the auditorium by sound designer Peter McBoyle. Michael Gianfrancesco's set works well in the Festival Theatre, which has seating in an unusual configuration for a musical making for a design challenge.

The only fault with this production is Feore's odd choice to use some dancing cowboys (likely left over from her staging of Crazy for You last year) to move sets around the stage. However, once off stage the cowboys are quickly forgotten as you get swept back into the story. Feore has crafted a brilliant production - and her staging of The Sound of Music is probably one of the best you'll ever see and is superior to any other first class production which has played Toronto recently.

Heading to Stratford to take in a performance of The Sound of Music will be well worth the trip.

The Sound of Music has music by Richard Rodgers, lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, and a book by Howard Lindsayand Russel Crouse. The musical is suggested by "The Trapp Family Singers" by Maria Augusta Trapp. The show us now on stage at the festival through October 18, 2015.

Tickets are available online at


The Sound of Music a joyous celebration of strong women


4 Stars (Out of 4)

Hamlet had this right, at least: Get thee to a nunnery.

The Sound of Music opened on the Stratford Festival’s iconic thrust stage on Tuesday, the night after a certain melancholy Dane had finished his masculine moping around on it – and right from the opening prelude sung a cappella by a superfluity of nuns, director Donna Feore’s production was a joyous celebration of strong women.

Chief among them is the tremendous lead, Stephanie Rothenberg – who is sunny, cunning and never the least bit cloying as her Maria charms and outsmarts seven children, a Captain von Trapp and eventually even the Nazis who have annexed Austria.

Perhaps it’d be a bit much to claim The Sound of Music as a better play than Hamlet – but the 1959 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical does pass the Bechdel test, where Shakespeare’s tragedy does not. And the show’s enduring popularity 50 years after the film came out no doubt has something to do with a preponderance of fantastic female characters who leave Gertrude looking underwritten and Ophelia like a sexist sacrifice.

There’s Maria, of course – an imperfectly pious nun sent to be governess for Captain von Trapp’s children, and who without a moment of hesitation stands up to him and his tiger parenting ways. (The social-history connection made in the 1959 musical between how children are raised and how fascism takes root is really quite ahead-of-its-time.)

But there’s also the Mother Abbess – warm and wise in Anita Krause’s majestic performance – and her fellow nuns who are the unsung heroines of the play. Likewise, Liesl (Alexandra Herzog), the oldest of the von Trapp children, has a role to play in saving the day – and in Herzog’s singing ofSixteen Going on Seventeen, slightly ironic, and her sexually confident dancing, she demonstrates that she is not “totally unprepared… to face a world of men.”

And then there’s the Baroness – who is engaged to Captain von Trapp, but who views marriage more as a corporate merger than the harnessing of two hearts. (This production doesn’t judge her for that – though she’s rightly taken to task for viewing the Anschluss in much the same way.)

It is striking in Feore’s subtly feminist re-envisioning of the show how truly dramatically unique the relationship between the Baronness and Maria is. Here are two women romantically interested in the same man, but who never fight over him – and who seem to truly respect one another. Remarkably, neither falls into the evil stepmother stereotype either – especially with Robin Evan Willis’s sincere and centred performance as Elsa.

I would be remiss if I only highlighted the women and didn’t spare a line or two for Ben Carlson, funny and tremendously moving as Captain von Trapp with a sweet singing voice that brings tears to your eyes. This may be his best performance at Stratford since his Hamlet on the same stage in 2008 – and it’s certainly his most open-hearted.

And, of course, there’s the von Trapp children, adorable simply in their presence, but impressive in their singing and dancing. I’ll list them all here for their parents’ to share on Facebook: Sean Dolan, Effie Honeywell, Alec Dahmer, Graci Leahy, Sarah DaSilva and the tiny, terrific Zoë Brown.

Feore, who now has had three must-see musicals on the Festival Stage in a row, is known for being a bit of a Captain von Trapp as a director – exhibit A, the almost fascistic precision of the choruses in her production of Crazy for You last season.

So, I was skeptical how Feore’s emphasis on souped-up spectacle would match up with a kinder, gentler show like The Sound of Music.

But the choreographer-turned-director’s best-staged scenes this time around are often the book scenes or remarkably restrained dances – notably the elegant pas de deux where Rothenberg’s Maria and Carlson’s Captain von Trapp fall convincingly in love. Feore put her exacting nature into finding the right Maria, a search that took her out of Canada to the United States where she found the gem that is Rothenberg. Three cheers to a director who puts her standards of excellence above company politics and nationalism – and whose chief allegiance is to the audience.

It’s true that you can feel Feore’s frustration that The Sound of Musicdoesn’t have more dance numbers during her scene changes, which she fills, unnecessarily, with frenetic movement. Indeed, at times, it seems like the cowboys from her Crazy for You last year have been hired this year as stagehands.

But, not for the first time, I remarked how confidently and completely she uses the entire stage, not overly concerned with naturalism. I wonder if we’ll get to see Feore have a go at a Shakespeare play in this space she’s now mastered three times in a row?


Stratford’s Sound of Music hits all the right notes

By: Richard Ouzounian Theatre Critic, Published on Wed May 27 2015

The Sound of Music

4 Stars (Out of 4)

Music by Richard Rodgers. Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II. Book by Howard Lindsay and Russell Crouse. Directed by Donna Feore. Until Oct. 18 at the Festival Theatre. or 1-800-567-1600

STRATFORD, ONT.—Just be patient. It takes about an hour for the tears to start flowing in the audience at Donna Feore’s production of The Sound of Music, which opened Tuesday at the Stratford Festival, but once they start they seldom stop until the final curtain.

Even a sentimental warhorse of a musical like this final Rodgers and Hammerstein classic can learn how to pack a new punch when it’s played with invention and honesty, qualities Feore’s musicals usually have in abundance.

No plot summary is needed for this show. You all know the drill: the von Trapp kids need a mother, their father needs an emotional awakening, Austria needs a way to survive the Nazi annexation of 1938.

They all find them in Maria, the original singing nun who manages to bring joy, love and commitment into everyone’s lives.

Mary Martin started it onstage, Julie Andrews enshrined it onscreen and they’re hard acts to follow . . . but not for Stephanie Rothenberg.

Five minutes in the presence of this woman and you can see her warmth is palpable and her voice has the clarity of an alpine mountain stream. She’s a winner. But best of all, with guidance from Feore, she plays a convincing character arc in the show, growing into a strong, savvy woman who knows how to hold a family together in moments of crisis. She succeeds on every front.

But she wouldn’t seem as great as she does without a superb partner. That’s where Ben Carlson comes into the picture. Like Christopher Plummer — Andrews’ mate in the movie — Carlson is a former Hamlet and a Stratford stalwart. But he brings great reserves of solidity and subtlety to his characterization, giving Rothenberg something to play off and us someone to cheer.

That first burst of tears I spoke of earlier comes when Carlson is moved to song for the first time since the death of his wife after hearing what Maria has done with the children — he delivers those kinds of moments to us time and time again. Carlson is one of this festival’s most precious resources.

The rest of the cast soar as well. The von Trapp kids are all genuine young people, not annoying stage kiddies and you love them all: Sean Dolan, Effie Honeywell, Alec Dahmer, Graci Leahy, Sarah DaSilva and Zoë Brown.

Alexandra Herzog’s strong-willed Liesl gets more to do in her relationship with the Nazi wannabe telegraph boy, Rolf, played with true bad-boy appeal by Gabriel Antonacci, and their “Sixteen Going On Seventeen” duet has more sexuality bubbling underneath than usual.

Anita Krause makes a fine Mother Abbess, strong of voice and straightforward of emotion, and you have to love the trio of nuns played by Monique Lund, Glynis Ranney and Alexis Gordon.

There’s a deliciously self-centred turn from Shane Carty as talent agent Max and Robin Evan Willis’s frosty blond beauty has never been used to better effect than here as the opportunistic Elsa Schraeder.

But Feore’s eye for detail is such that even a usually forgettable role like Frau Schmidt, the housekeeper, comes to vibrant life in the hands of Barbara Fulton.

Michael Gianfrancesco’s design is simple, but striking and versatile, while Laura Burton’s musical direction gets everything good out of Rodgers’ score.

There’s one regrettable bit of excess — Feore invents some ongoing shtick for a quartet of tipsy household staff that isn’t up to the level of the rest of the show’s taste — but nobody’s perfect.

The Sound of Music hits all the notes it’s supposed to and tugs at your heartstrings like a chorus of virtuoso bell-ringers. It’s wondrous stuff.

Stratford seems to have found a great opening formula: a Cimolino Shakespeare tragedy followed by a Feore musical comedy. It’s a one-two punch of theatrical success that can’t be beat.


Stratford casts festival newcomer in Sound of Music

Stratford casts festival newcomer in Sound of Music

Broadway performer Stephanie Rothenberg will play Maria in the 2015 production, the Star has learned.

How do you solve a problem like Maria? Well, if you’re director Donna Feore, you do a little cross-border shopping.

When in Rome. (Or Minneapolis.)

If you’re going to fall in love, it may as well be in Rome—and with a gorgeous princess. Such was the winning combo in Roman Holiday, the 1953 film that propelled Audrey Hepburn to fame (she won the Oscar for best actress in a leading role). Audiences swooned over Hepburn and Gregory Peck’s silver-screen romance, as well as the backdrop of their love: the Spanish Steps, the Trevi Fountain, the Coliseum.