Chicago Theatre Review
The Hills are Gloriously Alive
Sound of Music – Lyric Opera
Following last year’s respectable production of “Oklahoma,” the launching pad for the Lyric’s annual tribute to Rodgers & Hammerstein, this year’s beloved family story magnificently tops that production. It fills this enormous stage with unmatched sights and sounds. Beyond the spectacle, this fictionalized biographical story will no doubt be familiar to audiences due to the popularity of the beloved 1965 film. But the splendor found in the movie’s sweeping Austrian vistas and Julie Andrews’ dazzling portrayal of Maria von Trapp are fully matched here in this unbelievably spectacular live production.
Rob Fisher’s talented 37-piece orchestra fills the massive auditorium with Richard Rodgers‘ rich, romantic Alpine-flavored score. Twenty nuns bathed in candlelight breathtakingly open the show, setting the bar high for this top-notch production. These talented women raise their angelic voices in a resplendent praise of God that bookends this musical. And if the sheer power and beauty of so many accomplished voices aren’t enough to impress, Michael Yeargan’s lushly extravagant scenic design, matched by Alejo Vietti’s stunningly gorgeous palette of costumes, will certainly do the trick. Never has this show been more beautiful to the eye and ear; the composer/lyricist team would’ve been proud of what the Lyric has accomplished.
As Maria, Broadway’s Jenn Gambatese (Natalie in “All Shook Up,” Jane in Disney’s “Tarzan,” and recently Glinda in the national tour of “Wicked”) brings all her skill and talent to this role. Beginning her performance wending her way down a mountain path, singing the lovely title song with heartfelt clarity and passion, the actress seems curiously stiff and mechanical. However, when Ms. Gambatese reaches Mother Abbess’ office (accomplished opera star Christine Brewer in full, rich voice), she’s loosened up considerably. Their lovely duet of “My Favorite Things” is natural and lighthearted, providing additional dimension to both characters. Once the actress finds herself in the company of the seven adorable children entrusted to her care, Ms. Gamatese’s Maria has become a believable young woman, filled with insecurities, love, a reverence for both God and music and possessing a great sense of humor, to boot. By the time the audience sees her marry Captain von Trapp, stand by her family’s side in the musical festival and finally “Climb Every Mountain” to escape the Nazis, Jenn Gambatese has made Maria her very own.
As Captain von Trapp, film star Billy Zane suffers from similar symptoms, appearing a little uncomfortable and stiff at the beginning but eventually loosening up and becoming a likable father. Of course, this is the journey the character must take, so Zane’s Captain seems perfectly in keeping with the demands of the role. While Mr. Zane may not be the most accomplished singer in this production (making audiences wonder if there wasn’t a better “name” choice for this role), he makes the most of his musical demands. Zane brings class and stature to his role and his stiff posture gradually bends as Maria fills the Captain’s life with love and music.
The seven von Trapp children are all wonderfully cast. Betsy Farrar is a lovely, believable Liesl, from “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” (beautifully sung and danced with a charming Zach Sorrow as Rolf, thankfully avoiding the angry young man syndrome found in most portrayals) to her budding trust and love for Maria. Brady Tutton displays an accomplished soprano voice as Frederich and Michael Harp makes Kurt a lovable, real little boy. Julia Schweizer’s bookish Louisa, Isabelle Roberts‘ unabashed Brigitta, Kylee Hennes‘ charming little Marta and Nicole Scimeca’s sweet Gretl round out this artistic family of juvenile stars. Whether soaring all over the stage on bicycles, marching around the house singing “Do Re Mi” or bouncing on Maria’s bed while belting out “The Lonely Goatherd” to mask a loud, frightening thunderstorm, these children become the real stars of this production.
Opera diva Elizabeth Futral brings cool class and a gorgeous soprano to Baroness Elsa Schraeder. She’s paired with caustically sophisticated funny man Edward Hibbert as Max Detweiler. Chicago favorites Dev Kennedy and Mary Ernster turn in fine performances as the Captain’s competent house staff, Franz and Frau Schmidt. In addition to guest star Christine Brewer’s full-voiced, maternal Mother Abbess, Chicago musical theatre favorites Cory Goodrich and Susan Moniz are perfection as Sisters Margaretta and Sophia; and international opera star Erin Elizabeth Smith brings bite to feisty Sister Berthe.
Marc Bruni has warmly directed this production and infused it with spectacle and wonder. An excellent first musical experience for young audiences, his production will impress patrons with its abundance of musical and acting talent, the majesty in its size and scope and a real feeling of family and hope. Audiences should climb every mountain standing in their way to see this production of a true American classic of the musical stage. There will never be another like it.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented April 25-May 25 by the Lyric Opera, 20 N. Wacker Drive, Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling 312-332-2244 or by going to www.lyricopera.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.