The Sound of Music' gets classy revival at Hippodrome

Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun
If you usually run from "The Sound of Music," a first-class revival at the Hippodrome just may win you over.

Not all sweets are bad for you. However high the sugar content in "The Sound of Music," the revival of this Rodgers and Hammerstein classic now playing at the Hippodrome Theatre delivers immediate health benefits, especially to cynical personalities or psyches pummeled by recent national and world events.

Since those events include clamorous discussions of national security, loyalty and identity, it seems a particularly apt time to revisit a musical set in pre-Anschluss Austria, when such matters were of intense concern. Luckily for the central characters in "The Sound of Music," of course, faith, love, principle and dignity -- along with catchy songs -- trump all in the end.

The revival, directed with considerable nuance by Jack O'Brien and featuring a uniformly appealing cast, is faithful to the original 1959 stage version, a version that has not had nearly the exposure of the 1965 Julie Andrews-starring movie. Experiencing the musical in this form provides a nice little retro rush.

There's still plenty of theatrical life in this story, loosely based on the real-life Trapp Family Singers and written by theater pros Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse.

You know the plot: Would-be nun Maria becomes governess to the seven children of the widower Captain von Trapp, teaches them to sing, marries their father, helps to hold the family together so they can escape after the Nazi takeover. Creaky bits in the action are quickly oiled by the constant stream of ear-wormy songs.

With one exception — "Something Good," written for the film, takes the place of "Ordinary Couple" — the revival adheres to the original score. And what a score, demonstrating how skillfully Rodgers could move from sacred chant to conventional show tunes to Franz Lehar-like operetta, yet fashion something that sounds all of a piece.

As for Hammerstein's lyrics, I confess that I sometimes find them a little hard to take. I can never again hear the "like a lark learning to pray" line in "The Sound of Music" without thinking of Stephen Sondheim's cutting observation: "How can you tell a lark that is just learning to pray from one that's actually praying? Wait a minute — a lark praying? What are we talking about?"

Mostly, though, Hammerstein is in peak form in this work. It's particularly telling to hear again the cynical "No Way To Stop It" (cut from the movie), with its if-you-can't-beat-'em attitude about the Nazis.

The music gets quite a lift in this production, sung with naturalness and sensitivity by the principals onstage, supported stylishly by a decent-sized ensemble in the pit.

As Maria, newcomer Kerstin Anderson (she was a sophomore in college when chosen for the role) gives every indication she is ready for the big time. She shines right from her first scene, molding the title song in an intimate fashion that reveals much about this unsettled character. Even the numbers that can easily cloy ("Do-Re-Mi," for a start) become less so, thanks to Anderson's animated phrasing.

She is just as persuasive an actor, effortlessly connecting with the children and making Maria's spiritual struggle register. She is especially adept at conveying Maria's gradual falling in love with von Trapp, a role brought tellingly to life by Ben Davis.

His warm, supple singing is a major asset. He approaches "Edelweiss" as if it were by Schubert, and the eloquent phrasing makes the song's bittersweetness register all the more effectively.

As the Mother Abbess, Ashley Brown is a vivid presence (other than some stilted hand gestures), and her unforced, bell-toned account of "Climb Ev'ry Mountain" hits home.

The roles of the Trapp children are confidently filled. The strong supporting cast includes Teri Hansen, offer wry touches as the Captain's possible new wife; and Merwin Foard, who stands out for his well-timed flourishes as Max, the amoral friend of the Captain. The chorus, especially the women intoning the nuns' chants, offers sturdy support.

Opening night included some lighting issues that have presumably been smoothed out. The show is finely costumed by Jane Greenwood and cutely choreographed by Danny Mefford, who gives the landler number an especially charming touch.

Douglas W. Schmidt's scenic design gets the job done, most handsomely in the finale, but often looks a little too economical (a cartoon-like backdrop of pink-hued Alps wears thin).

This production started on the road, with an eye on making it to Broadway eventually. A revival that treats a vintage musical so honorably and sensitively ought to be welcome even in jaded New York.

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If you go

"The Sound of Music" runs through Sunday at Hippodrome Theatre, 12 N. Eutaw St. Call 800-982-2787, or go to baltimorehippodrome.com.

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