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'Sound of Music' soars on Compass Rose's intimate stage

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Compass Rose Theater opens its third season — and its first with a full, four-show schedule at its Spa Road location — with Rodgers and Hammerstein's "The Sound of Music," featuring a cast of 17 delivering a splendid production of the beloved 1959 blockbuster.

Here in its new venue, Compass Rose's musical talent expands to the theater's lofty height. The production also fills the 25-foot-wide stage, bringing the audience in close quarters with the von Trapp family.

Musical director Anita O'Connor draws professional harmony and beguiling solo work from children in the cast, as well as phenomenal performances from adult cast members.

On opening night, O'Connor, also serving as pianist, struck up an overture filled with the dimensional vitality of a full pit orchestra. She brought fresh luster to the familiar score, anticipating and underscoring every emotion from the accompanying performers. O'Connor is assisted by pianist/accompanist Erika Knepp, who is remembered for her excellent work in Compass Rose's production of "Oliver!" two seasons back.

In her program notes, Compass Rose's founding artistic director, Lucinda Merry-Browne, reminds us that as a professional theater with a teaching mission, Compass Rose has two shows every season that place students alongside professionals on stage. Seven students are cast in "Sound of Music," with two members of Compass Rose's Young Actors' Studio participating.

These students deliver every line naturally and flawlessly, in addition to singing beautifully. The younger children are enchanting, while the young adults hold their own with cast professionals. They become an inspired chorus, joyously singing "Do-Re-Mi" and later, "My Favorite Things" and "So Long, Farewell" to create heartfelt entertainment.

Staging a play that may be Rodgers and Hammerstein's greatest musical is a formidable challenge. The play's 1959 Broadway production starred Mary Martin and Theodore Bikel and its multi-awarded 1963 movie version, filmed in Salzburg, featured Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer.

Compass Rose meets the challenge with a set designed by Joe Powell, who allows audiences to imagine the Alps within the confines of the 70-seat theater through a minimalist approach. Powell uses the stage height to create three levels, with a middle staircase accommodating a series of actions. A variety of flags are hung to indicate specific locations — from convent to chapel to Salzburg Theater.

As director, Merry-Browne, moves the action speedily and smoothly, drawing the audience in by using the theater's center aisle for various processions. Adaptive of the minimalist approach, Merry-Browne uses space for maximum effect with her talented cast, so that intimacy is taken to full advantage to engage the audience in the von Trapp family's plight.

All the young cast members are excellent, each distinctly individual and disarming, from young Gretl, adorably played by Sophia Nasreen Riazi-Sekowski, to the eldest, Liesl, beautifully played by Broadneck High School senior Mariel White. White is already a veteran of Talent Machine and Children's Theatre of Annapolis productions.

Completing the stage family of von Trapp children are Daniel Starnes as Friedrich, Mallory Holson as Louisa, Annabelle Cotton as Kurt, Madelyn Schloss as Brigitta and Sarah Grace Clifton as Marta.

A. J. Whittenberger impresses as Rolf Gruber, especially when he joins White in "Sixteen Going on Seventeen" — both are charming in song and dance.

Adding humor and sophistication are characters Elsa Schraeder, played by Jamie Odgen, who has graced Toby's Dinner Theatre productions; and opportunistic concert entrepreneur Max Detweiler, played by Equity actor Daniel Seifring, a reliable Compass Rose favorite. Seifring provided a memorable Louie in the Compass Rose production of "Lost in Yonkers" and defined the role of Fagin in "Oliver."

As Captain von Trapp's fiancee, Baroness Elsa Schraeder is a successful career woman with a survivor's instincts, and is well played by Odgen, who proves a talented musical performer. Together, Ogden and Seifring deliver a sardonic "How Can Love Survive?" humorously expressing their worldly views.

Equity actor Katie Keyser creates an inspired Maria who relates beautifully with the von Trapp children and the Nonnberg sisters, and summons credible emotion — from initial confusion to gentle understanding and awakening love. From her opening "The Sound of Music" solo to an engaging "Do-Re-Mi" with the children to her radiant "My Favorite Things," Keyser's singing brightens the entire show.

Proving Keyser's worthy partner is Andre Softeland as Captain von Trapp, who convincingly transitions from rigid, militaristic widower to caring father and inspired love interest — all due to Maria's influence. Softeland's singing is inspired, his warm, resonant voice a perfect match for Keyser.

Among the cast's fine singers are the Nonnberg Abbey sisters, most noteworthy Mother Abbess, played by Jill Sharpe Compton. Her rendition of "Climb Every Mountain" is superbly sung, with a soft thoughtful beginning that builds to the ringing conclusion. Compton's "My Favorite Things" duet with Keyser provides joyous moments.

The "Sound of Music" continues weekends, Thursdays through Sundays, at Compass Rose Theater, 49 Spa Road Annapolis, through Nov. 10. For show times and ticket information, go to compassrosetheater.org.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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