Could there be a more daunting prospect for a director than to stage The Sound of Music? There was even trepidation in reviewing this latest offering by the Ignatians. Everything about the musical, popularised in the 1965 film, is so familiar the splendid music, the images of Salzburg, Austria where the movie was filmed, and the dominant, larger than life impression left by the film’s star Julie Andrews.
The unease is palpable when Maria (Tina Carter), a novice at the Nonnberg Abbey, breaks into the title song. The hills may be alive with the sound of music but the mind’s eye is firmly trapped on those revolving high shots of Julie Andrews swirling across green fields in the Austrian Alps.
How can a slip of a girl, on a large and vacant stage, superimpose herself against those powerful, entrenched images?
How indeed! Yet from this moment onward, director Dianne Nixon and her excellent team set about placing their stamp on the classic story of love, romance and escape in the political hothouse of 1938 Austria and the encroaching scourge of Nazism. The notes from the director in the show’s program give a clear outline of how Nixon approached the task. She returned to the original stage version of the show for direction and inspiration: I have encouraged the cast to study the story as told in the script and score, and to try to put the Hollywood movie version out of their minds. In this way we have attempted to explore the work afresh.
To a great extent they have achieved their objective, capturing all the familiar, well-loved elements of the show and adding some fresh insights. Particularly effective is the brooding presence of Hitler Youth, contrasted wonderfully with the playful innocence of the von Trapp children, as they engage with their new governess, Maria. Brown-shirted youths mingle in the foyer as you arrive. They are the stagehands silently repositioning the elaborate set of the von Trapp family home (our nuns and novices play a similar role shuffling brightly lit pillars about to reflect changing scenes at the abbey). And after the anschluss, the imposed union of Austria and Germany, the Hitler Youth become more sinister and menacing as they join the hunt for the Captain (who opposes the union), his new bride Maria and the seven children who are forced to flee Austria.
There is much to applaud in this production. With so many people in the support team it is hard to know where to start. The musical is presented on an ambitious scale. Production manager Emma Sutton has done an excellent job with the logistics of set changes and scene changes; the set and costume design of Carmen Gray captures each moment and character; and Derek Griffin’s lighting is exceptional. Under musical director Elspeth Sutherland, the orchestra blends seamlessly with the chorus.
Rodgers and Hammerstein have given us wonderful music and lyrics that are played and sung well.
As Maria, Tina Carter’s best moments are with the children, where her vibrant personality works as a catalyst for some superb interaction between her and Liesl (Stephanie Biggs); Friedrich (Steven Ellis), Louisa (Ngaire Lock), Kurt (Nicholas Forster-Crilly), Brigitta (Nellie Martin), Marta (Kristyn Bilson) and a delightful Gretl (Katie Martin).
As often happens when children are involved, there are alternate casts. Given the attention to detail for everything else involved in this production one assumes that the alternate von Trapp children, Katie Jordan, Dale Napier, Meghan O’Shea, Andrew Whitmore, Chantelle Hope-Hodgetts, Clea Harbison and Chloe Einicke generate the same sense of fun and enthusiasm.
For his part James Crilly (Georg) does well to make the subtle transition from disciplinarian naval commander to warm and sensitive father.
There are many musical highlights: “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” giving scope for both the vocal and acting skills of Liesl and her suitor Rolf (Simon Schmidt); “The Lonely Goatherd” when the children, frightened by the storm, rush to Maria’s bedroom for comfort; the duet “No Way to Stop It” when the Baroness (Ann Walsh) and the Captain’s friend Max (Bruce Edwards) show their willingness to acquiesce with the new political order; and “Something Good”, a song from the movie, not the original stage score, when the captain and Maria declare their love for each other.
Another special moment is when the Mother Abbess’ (Doreen Orton) first implores Maria to “Climb Every Mountain”. Then there is the well-contrived choreography of Sue Forster-Crilly, the wonderful harmonies of the chorus and the comic skills of Bruce Edwards, each adding a something special to the performance.