WBT's 'Sound of Music' solves the problem of Maria

Published: Monday, July 1, 2013 7:00 am By: John P. McCarthy Source: The Journal News

It doesn’t take long into Westchester Broadway Theatre’s production of “The Sound of Music” to realize the show has vocal and atmospheric power.

The first two scenes provide ample proof.

First, when the nuns of Nonnberg Abbey chant their prayers before discussing their wayward postulant, Maria.

Then, when the aforementioned sister-in-training gazes at the majestic mountains and sings their praises in the show’s title song.

Director Jonathan Stahl has solved the problem of casting Maria: Aubrey Sinn brings youthful exuberance and vocal dynamism to the role, bringing the hills — rendered in a charming backdrop by scenic designer Steve Loftus — to life.

Any production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s cherished musical faces lofty expectations. Despite some visible cracks, WBT’s is as solid as the abbey walls or the Tyrolean Alps.

With her red hair and effusive manner, Sinn radiates the feminine warmth craved by the von Trapp brood. There’s little doubt this governess brings love. Arriving at the villa, Maria promptly rejects the discipline-by-the-whistle method Captain von Trapp (Matthew Shepard) employs.

Relying on his military background to cope, the stern widower has banned music and any inkling of merriment. He’s away for long stretches and woos a rich Viennese baroness, wrongly thinking she has a motherly touch.

Georg von Trapp is hardly a scintillating role. It’s all about restraint and reserve, so an actor needs a strong stage presence — especially since he’s competing with seven children and a dulcet caregiver. Unfortunately, Shepard is upstaged by Maria and the kids and squanders his chance to touch hearts when singing “Edelweiss” during the climactic festival competition.

Not to worry. That can be overcome, as can overacting by several ensemble members, who shout their lines and use exaggerated accents to signify the Nazi threat.

Key supporting players are delightful. As the Mother Abbess, Karen Murphy closes Act One with an inspirational version of “Climb Ev’ry Mountain.”

Sounding uncannily like Nathan Lane, Jamison Stern amuses as producer Max Detweiler. And Michelle Dawson’s elegant turn as von Trapp’s lady friend Elsa makes haute couture and sarcasm seem endearing.

Their duet, “How Can Love Survive?”, will be a revelation for those who are only familiar with the 1965 film. Alongside the show’s classics — “The Sound of Music,” “Sixteen Going on Seventeen,” and “Edelweiss” — this clever ditty about money and matrimony demonstrates Oscar Hammerstein’s brilliance as a lyricist.

With the exception of Molly Emerson, who plays lovelorn Liesl, two sets of child actors alternate performances. Those appearing on opening night didn’t strain to be cute.

Highlights of director Stahl’s staging include his four-corner arrangement of the children during “Do-Re-Mi” and the poignant wedding ceremony in which a rose window descends while the nuns process and offer beautiful vocal accompaniment.

Conductor Leo P. Carusone maintains a brisk tempo and the uncluttered set functions well, as do Loren Shaw’s costumes.

Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse’s book is surprisingly shrewd and sensitive about religious vocations. Due in part to her rousing voice, it’s difficult to gainsay wisdom dispensed by Murphy’s Mother Abbess. For example, “If you love this man it doesn’t mean you love God less.”

In the first scene, the Mother Abbess says there’s no place for the “pretentiously pious” in religious life. WBT’s traditional production follows suit by conveying the essence of “The Sound of Music” without resorting to excess ornamentation.