Matthew Reddin

“Sound of Music” a smashing success for the Skylight

There's too many "favorite things" to list about this beautiful, heartfelt revival of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic.

By - Nov 19th, 2012 04:00 am

“The Sound of Music” doesn’t just look beautiful – it’s a retelling of the classic story with an emotional heft that rivals the original. Photo credit Mark Frohna.

Once the holiday theater season kicks off, there’ll be a dozen-odd family-friendly shows vying for your attention. So beat the rush and see Skylight Music Theatre’s The Sound of Music now. The Skylight premiere, a Rodgers and Hammerstein classic about a nun who finds herself falling in love with an Austrian naval captain and his family of seven children, is easily the most beautiful play I’ve seen in recent memory.

Some of this beauty is purely visual. Peter Dean Beck’s set design is nothing short of breathtaking, frequently using open layouts and translucent scrims to reveal the majestic Austrian Alps on a backdrop just beyond. Pam Rehberg’s costumes matched the set well – perhaps too well at times; while Captain Georg Von Trapp (Steve Koehler) says Maria’s (Elizabeth Telford) dress upon arrival is hideous, we in the audience can see clearly it’s as attractive as everything else worn on stage. Except the play-clothes Maria makes out of curtains, obviously.

But the real beauty of the Skylight production of The Sound of Music comes from director Molly Rhode, music director Jamie Johns and the cast they’ve assembled, performing this story and its collection of touching, beloved songs with a heart that might even put the 1965 film to shame at times.

The talented Elizabeth Telford (Maria, L) and Steve Koehler (Georg, C) lead the Von Trapp clan in song before making their escape from Austria. Photo credit Mark Frohna.

The actors playing the musical’s most pivotal roles, Maria and Captain Von Trapp, face the most pressure and achieve the greatest heights. Telford’s Maria is spasmodic, juvenile and fiery in a way that is very un-Julie Andrews, but just right for the role nonetheless. Her command of the film’s many songs is nuanced and deliberate without seeming calculated, giving them purpose beyond simply being a famous song from The Sound of Music. Take “Do-Re-Mi”: Telford performs the song with frequent, quick hesitations, reminding us that Maria’s figuring out the song – and her life – on the fly.

Captain Von Trapp is written as a second fiddle musically, not singing a note until most of the way through the first act and thereafter only getting a song here and there until the family performs at the cultural festival. That’s a tragedy, because Koehler has the best voice in the entire cast. The scene where he sings for the first time is already emotional enough, but his voice adds a new layer of pathos to the song. And don’t even get me started on “Edelweiss,” especially not when his fingers falter on the guitar strings and his voice breaks off.

That family is double-cast full of charming child actors, taking turns one-upping each other in a battle to see who can be the cutest. I only saw one cast, but I’m sure the other collection of Von Trapp Family Singers is equally as gifted. The only mainstay for all shows is Liesl (Erin Stapleton), who easily holds her own on the stage with the “adults.” Her performance of “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” with Rolf (Ryan Tutton) is coquettish enough to suggest a manipulative dynamic but innocent enough that her first kiss sends her into paroxysms of glee, and she and Telford have wonderful chemistry.

As Capt. Von Trapp, Koehler (foreground) doesn’t get a lot of solo opportunities, but he commands the stage during those rare moments. Photo credit Mark Frohna.

As do Telford and Cynthia Marty, playing Mother Abbess. The Reverend Mother is the only one able to moderately tame Maria’s wild spirit, but Marty never seems to relish that ability, nor Telford resent it. And Marty’s voice is a crystalline soprano perfectly suited for “Climb Ev’ry Mountain,” which benefits from a more youthful voice than that of the film.

Kay Stiefel and Skylight artistic director Bill Theisen round out the main singing cast, as Elsa Schraeder and Max Detweiler. Both are excellent actors, but the production favors the cinematic version of The Sound of Music, which alters the storyline in a number of ways not in their favor. The most obvious is the axing of a first-act duet, limiting them to one mediocre song about the approaching Anschluss (“No Way to Stop It”) that wasn’t even included in the film, giving it an unfamiliarity that can’t help but weaken its effect. Those edits help Telford and Koehler though – they allow for the addition of the film-specific “I Have Confidence,” a perfect song for Telford’s more impulsive Maria, and “Something Good,” which provides the much-too-rare gift of Telford and Koehler’s voices united.

A 21-nun auxiliary chorus rounds out the musical’s cast. They’re much of the reason for the its huge size (totaling 63, the largest in Skylight history) but are so, so worth it. The musical’s familiar songs are great, but adding in a cappella chants and hymns are a mindblowingly majestic grace note on this already stellar show.

The Sound of Music runs through December 31 at the Skylight Music Theatre. Tickets are $22.50 to $65.50 and can be purchased at (414) 291-7800 or online. For more information about the show, check out this preview, featuring interviews with director Molly Rhode and actor Elizabeth Telford.

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