TAMPA — Fifty years after Julie Andrews burst into song from the mountaintop, lifting the spirits of multiple generations, The Sound of Music remains a crowd pleaser.
The film has drawn huge ratings since it first aired on television in the 1970s, including the 18 million in December 2013 who watched a ghastly live production on NBC. The touring musical, the most recent take on the Broadway hit that preceded the film, opened Tuesday at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts.
Given its track record, the merits of recycling this package of grand statements and unforgettable songs might seem obvious.
But putting it on also entails risks, some of them indistinguishable from the show's virtues. At a time when so many are jaded or fearful or depressed, can a story about irrepressible hope still connect, particularly one we think we've all seen before?
That is the question that faced Jack O'Brien, a three-time Tony-winning director who headed this show. He has answered it with bold choices in casting and an enveloping mood of Naziism at the doorstep. O'Brien told me in a recent interview that he had taken steps to emphasize pre-war tensions in 1938 Austria, the setting for romance between governess Maria Rainer and Capt. Georg von Trapp, more than you would notice in the movie.
He makes every effort to deliver on that promise. Some of it is foreshadowed in the script, as when the taciturn captain remarks, "Today it is difficult to tell who is a friend and who is an enemy."
Capt. von Trapp, a widower played with an endearing crustiness by Ben Davis, has yet to acknowledge just how poisonous the atmosphere around him has become. He is too busy falling in love with Maria, who is busy teaching his children about raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens. If that seems a little hokey, it's worth remembering that the stage musical debuted in 1959, when the wounds of war were still relatively fresh. By the second act, a sense of menace has greatly accelerated.
Like the original Broadway show, this Sound of Music has cast an operatic soprano in the role of the Mother Abbess. Ashley Brown is pretty spectacular here, and her Climb Ev'ry Mountain ruffles the back curtains of the balconies. Unlike that show, which starred a middle-aged Mary Martin as Maria, or the movie with a 30-year-old Andrews, this musical stars a woman who would be a junior at Pace University had she not taken this role.
With Kerstin Anderson in the musical's pivotal role, we suddenly have a Maria who can believably relate to children because she is just a year past being a teenager herself. Her choice between romantic love and a convent, while possible at any age, seems more like a 20-year-old's dilemma than someone with more experience of the world. Anderson embodies the assertive wholesomeness of Maria alongside actors with lengthy Broadway credits. The casting choice seems particularly apt for Maria's bond with Liesl, the captain's eldest daughter (and half of the duet Sixteen Going on Seventeen), played with hormonal intensity and delicacy by Paige Silvester.
The arc of the story unfolds with a sure-handed ease, aided by a scenic design by Douglas W. Schmidt and lighting by Natasha Katz. The convent in which the show opens is a refuge in which the only colors are black and white. The von Trapp mansion invites rose or lavender hues for a dinner party or as the setting for bitter-edged ruminations between Capt. von Trapp; his fiance, Elsa Schraeder (Teri Hansen); and their mutual friend, the charmingly unscrupulous Max Detweiler (Merwin Foard) about the intrusions of the Third Reich (No Way to Stop It, a song that was not in the movie). Out the window lie the Alps, which either hem them in or offer a means of escape.
No account of the cast would be complete without mentioning the children, who make a credible contest-winning troupe and know how to be adorable. Their innocence contrasts with a ratcheted-up Nazi presence that eventually takes over the stage. This real conflict, based on a true story, is what has kept The Sound of Music relevant. The touring production has played that hand to full advantage.
Contact Andrew Meacham at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.