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. stratfordfestival.ca 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.
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.