The Ahmanson’s joyous new production of “The Sound of Music” was a good bit of medicine for Los Angeles. Broadway veteran director Jack O’Brien delivered something now considered unusual: a work that touches thought-provoking themes without making the whole evening depressing.
The time is the late 1930s, and odd-ball, music worshiping, beauty-loving Sister Maria (Kirsten Anderson) can’t seem to swing with her abbey’s pious ways. So, Mother Abbess (Ashley Brown) sends her to fulfill a governess position to widower Captain Von Trapp’s (Ben Davis) seven eclectic youngsters. Little does she know that the Von Trapp’s home isn’t much less strict than the dimly lit abbey.
Rejecting Von Trapp’s military child-rearing philosophy, she teaches the children to sing, helps them through their worries, hormones and generally shows them there’s more to life than responding to whistles.
Guess what? Von Trapp fancies her as well, so he eventually marries the would-be nun. But in the midst of the exuberance, the Nazi threat emerges from Berlin, leaving the Von Trapp family left to decide its greatest values.
Anderson, a Pace University sophomore, has a very nice voice, but can’t match the tremendous majesty of Julie Andrews in the 1965 film. Still, seeming to understand the character, she was bright, energetic, and well portrayed Maria’s conflicting sense of duty and free spirit. Ben Davis wore a beard as Captain Von Trapp. He too was believable and seemed to understand O’Brien’s vision to not dumb the show down.
Brown’s hymn-singing voice was actually breath-taking, while Teri Hanson as Elsa, Von Trapp’s fiancée, was more heinous than her nicer London West End 2006 counterpart. That’s nothing to complain about.
Erwin Foard as Max Deitweiller was the evening’s most colorful character. Portrayed unapologetically as an anti-hero, his best line was his self-designation as “lovable,” and it received boisterous laughter from the audience.
Recalling the successful 2006 London Palladium production, one can note the differences in their strong points. In America, the Von Trapp children (while portrayed by the best America has to offer in young talent) over-enunciate their T’s while dropping the english accent and moving into Americanized drama a moment later. Liesl (Paige Silvestor) initially came off not as sweet and curious about the world she’s soon to enter, but a slightly narcissistic teenager. She grew up later in the show, which was nice to see. Also, contrary to the London production, Rolf (Dan Tracy) was underutilized. Still, Svea Johnson as Brigitta was spunky.
At the Ahmanson (unlike the much larger London Palladium theatre), towering Nazi flags could not descend from every corner of the house and envelope a struck audience.
But these are little things when judged by itself, for the show has much to offer. It’s more open in its themes than the film (now in its 50th Anniversary), ultimately following a struggle to claim character’s dearest values. The revealing of Mother Abbey’s youth, Maria’s relationship with the church, and Von Trapp’s neglect of household joy are all examples.
At the end of the second act, Maria peeling off her religious scarf was fantastic.
When the characters claim their identity, their values are put to the test. Max and others urge Von Trapp to remain passive at the Nazi invasion. They even sing a whole Chamberlain-like tune about compromising. But Von Trapp makes sure that his family does not cave in a heroic statement of the value of freedom and love of life.
While O’Brien has actually stated that he wouldn’t mind shocking people a little, this is not some boorish “message” outing. With purity, splendor, and fabulous music, Los Angeles must not let this show go without applause.
The Sound of Music played at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles through Oct. 31. It is currently on national tour.