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'Sound' not like real life; Musical: Baltimore's Agathe von Trapp reflects upon the story of her family as the 'Sound of Music' revival opens at the Lyric Opera House.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The story depicted in "The Sound of Music," which opens at the Lyric Opera House tomorrow, might seem like a tale out of a storybook -- something that happened long ago and far away. But there's a very immediate Baltimore connection.

Agathe von Trapp, 86, the oldest of the real-life von Trapp daughters, has lived in the Baltimore area since 1958, when she came here to run a private kindergarten in Glyndon.

In crafting the musical, Rodgers and Hammerstein's collaborators, Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, who wrote the libretto, made some significant alterations in the true story of the Trapp Family Singers.

"In the musical, they changed the names," von Trapp said from her home in Baltimore County, adding that they also changed the gender of some of the children. The oldest von Trapp child, for example, was a boy, not a girl. And, when the family fled Austria, the children were considerably older than they are portrayed on stage. Agathe was 25 at the time, but the the oldest daughter in the musical is only 16.

In addition, the family -- which eventually settled in Stowe, Vt., where they still run the Trapp Family Lodge -- didn't climb the Alps to escape the Nazis, they took the train. But von Trapp is hesitant to go into detail about the escape, because she is writing her memoirs.

She was willing to talk about her late father and stepmother, Maria, however. Captain von Trapp, a career Navy officer, "did everything that he could possibly do for his children," she recalled. "He was himself very musical. He played the violin and the guitar, and he taught us these instruments, and he was a quiet person, and he had sort of a natural dignity."

"Maria," she continued, "did not come to be our governess, she came to just tutor my sister, Maria, who was very delicate and couldn't go to school for a while."

She described her stepmother, who died in 1987, as "a very nice person. She was very smart. She was very determined. She knew intuitively what needed to be done at certain times, what should be decided." The captain and his second wife had three children besides the seven from his first marriage. Six of the 10 are still living.

Von Trapp went on to say that the family gave its first public performance in 1936, encouraged by German soprano Lotte Lehmann. "From that," she said, "somebody else heard us and asked us to sing on the radio. Somebody else heard us and asked us to sing in a private reception, so it went on from one to the other."

She saw the current revival of "The Sound of Music" on Broadway. "It's very fresh and very nice. The children play beautifully," she said. But, she added, "it's different from real life."

Show times for "The Sound of Music" at the Lyric Opera House, 140 W. Mount Royal Ave., are 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 7: 30 p.m. Sunday, with matinees at 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Tickets are $15-$62.50. Call 410-481-7328.

A 'Session' with hope

"The Last Session," a 1997 musical by songwriter Steve Schalchlin and librettist Jim Brochu, starts out as a show about dying of AIDS and ends up as a show about living with AIDS.

In other words, this small-scale musical is about the journey from despair to hope. It's a journey stirringly depicted at AXIS Theatre, under the sure-handed direction of Terry J. Long.

The action takes place at a recording studio, which allows most of the songs to have a realistic context. Gideon (Stephen Antonsen), an HIV-positive gospel star-turned-pop singer and songwriter, has assembled three back-up singers to record a final album, which will serve as his suicide note to his unseen partner.

Two of the back-up singers (Linda M. Jones and Maribeth Vogel Eckenrode) have long-time relationships with Gideon. The third, Buddy (Ryan McCracken), is a newcomer who claims he's filling in for a singer who couldn't make it.

Although initially only the recording engineer (Steve Zumbrum) knows Gideon's intentions, there's plenty of other drama among the characters, particularly between Gideon and Buddy, a young Bible-thumping fundamentalist who believes you can't be both Christian and gay.

In an impressive performance, Antonsen plays Gideon with a combination of anger, determination and warmth, and his strong singing voice has a smooth pop quality that makes his character credible as a former headliner. Jones also sings with fervor, and Eckenrode manages to keep her role, as the woman everyone loves to hate, from turning into a caricature.

McCracken has the right clean-cut boyish look for Buddy and effectively conveys his character's eventual confusion, but his singing isn't slick enough for someone who's supposed to have star potential.

As the subject matter would suggest, Schalchlin's music runs the gamut from gospel to pop. The lyrics range from Gideon's tribute to his parents, "The Preacher and the Nurse," to "Friendly Fire," which includes the sardonic lyric, "Sometimes it feels like my medication is killing me with friendly fire." One of two numbers that move out of the show's naturalistic format, "Friendly Fire," cleverly directed by Long, features the cast parading in military garb.

"The Last Session" is based on Schalchlin's own struggle with AIDS, and the California-based songwriter will step into the largely autobiographical lead role at AXIS on Oct. 9, with his partner, Brochu, playing the recording engineer (though Schalchlin has occasionally appeared in the show before, this is a first for Brochu). Already genuinely affecting, AXIS' fine production should gain even further depth with its creators on stage.

Show times at AXIS, 3600 Clipper Mill Road, are 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays, through Oct. 17. Tickets are $10-$14, except the evening of Oct. 9, which is $30, to benefit AXIS. At 2 p.m. Oct. 9, Schalchlin will give a one-man show to benefit Youth Guardian Services, an Internet organization for gay youth; tickets are also $30. Call 410-243-5237.

'Snow' takes top honors

Gordon Porterfield's "Snow," directed by Lance Lewman, took top honors as both best play and best production at the Baltimore Playwrights Festival's annual awards ceremony last week. "Snow" was selected by a panel of seven judges drawn from various branches of local theater. The event, held at F. Scott Black's Dinner Theatre in Towson, was attended by an audience of 100.

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