Chicago Theatre Review
Nuns, Nazis and a Naval Captain’s Kids
The Sound of Music – Brightside Theatre
BrightSide Theatre, the pride of Naperville as its only professional theatre company, wrings down the curtain of its fourth season with Rodgers and Hammerstein’s beloved family musical. This is the touching, tuneful true tale of Maria Rainer, a young postulate at Salzburg’s Nonnberg Abbey, who was sent by the Mother Abbess to serve as a governess for the seven children of Captain von Trapp, a wealthy, widowed Austrian naval captain. This romantic story, was the final collaboration between America’s most famous composer/lyricist duo. It’s been charming audiences since it debuted on Broadway, back in 1959. It features a book, adapted from Maria’s own autobiography, The Story of the Trapp Family Singers, by the esteemed writing team of Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse. The original production, which starred Mary Martin and Theodore Bikel, won 5 Tony Awards (tying with “Fiorello” for Best Musical), and went on to play a whopping 1,443 performances. It spawned several national tours, multiple international productions, an acclaimed Broadway revival and an adored, world famous 1965 Academy Award-winning film.
Although this show is quite different from BrightSide’s previous musical offerings (“Rent,” “Company,” “Cabaret”), this beautiful fictionalized true story magnificently stands with some of the company’s best work. Director Jeffrey Cass fills the intimate Meiley-Swallow stage with talent: performers, musicians and technical artists, all united to tell this compelling story against the majesty of Richard Rodgers’ music. The movie’s sweeping Austrian vistas and Julie Andrews’ dazzling, Oscar-winning portrayal of Maria may be missing here, but in almost every other way this is a very respectable stage version of this musical classic.
Michael Kaish’s talented 8-member orchestra fills the auditorium with Rodgers‘ rich, romantic Alpine-flavored score, which the talented young Musical Director arranged himself. A half dozen 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 these accomplished voices aren’t enough to impress, Jarrod Bainter’s versatile scenic and lighting design will certainly do the trick.
As Maria, Meg McGarry brings all her talent and vocal expertise to this role. Her performance begins as she sings the lovely title song with so much heartfelt clarity and passion, reveling in the beauty of her beloved mountains. By the time Ms. McGarry races back to the convent, confronted by a concerned Mother Abbess (played with dignity and a dash of humor by accomplished opera singer Michelle Hackman, in full, rich voice), she’s won over the audience. Their lovely duet of “My Favorite Things” is natural and lighthearted, delivering an added dimension to both characters. Later in the show, Ms. Hackman’s glorious rendition of “Climb Every Mountain” brings a tear to the eyes. Once Ms. McGarry finds herself in the company of the seven adorable children entrusted to her care, Maria has become a truly believable, empathetic character, filled with insecurities, love, a reverence for music, a great sense of humor and a winning smile, to boot. In short, Meg McGarry has made Maria all her own.
As Captain von Trapp, Tony Lage begins as a stiff, austere man who uses a boatswain’s pipe to call his children and household staff. A recent widower, he finds comfort in the military discipline the Navy instilled in him. However, as the Captain succumbs to Maria’s charm, Mr. Lage gradually relaxes him, becoming a compassionate father and, ultimately, a romantic leading man.. Mr. Lage is a most accomplished singer, one of the finest vocalists seen in this role. His rendition of “Edelweiss” is simple and lovely, as is his duet with Ms. McGarry, “An Ordinary Couple.” Lage brings class and stature to as his stiffness melts away and Maria fills the Captain’s life with love and music.
The seven von Trapp children are all wonderfully cast. Hope Elizabeth Shafer is a lovely, believable Liesl, from “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” (beautifully sung and danced with a charming Frank Zabilka as Rolf) to her budding trust and affection for Maria. Max McNeal Martin makes a strong, good-looking Frederich and DJ Emma plays Kurt as a caring, real little boy, with a killer soprano voice. Pretty Tessa Newman’s fun-loving Louisa is charming and sings like a bird, Skylar McClure’s unabashed, observant Brigitta proves to be the brains of the clan, Sophie Logalbo is a personable, pixie-like young Marta and Ella Schuler makes a sweet little Gretl, bandaged finger and all. Whether 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 are the real stars of this production.
Beautiful, accomplished vocalist Christie Coran is a much-welcome newcomer to BrightSide Theatre, bringing cool class and a gorgeous soprano to Baroness Elsa Schrader. She’s paired with caustically sophisticated, flamboyant funny man John Boss as Max Detweiler. Andy Clifton turns in a fine, grounded performance as the Captain’s competent butler, Franz; however Jane Brewer might consider toning down her over the top performance as housekeeper Frau Schmidt. Christine Ronna plays Maria’s defender, Sister Margaretta, with sparkle and whimsy; Elizabeth Morgan’s Sister Sophia is stalwart and steady; and Lori Klose brings bite to feisty Sister Berthe.
The single element of this production that, unfortunately, falls short is visual. Jeanine Fry’s costumes are mixture of a few attractive, well-fitting fashions (particularly those for the Captain, the Baroness and Max) juxtaposed with a variety of homely, ill-fitting costumes, especially those for the children, the nuns, Frau Schmidt and some of the party guests. Ms. Fry’s attempt to create the look of the late 1930’s is disappointing. The outfits often feature dresses and suits that are either too tight or too baggy and skirts that are way too short for that time period. Ms. Fry misses a design opportunity when the dress Maria wears to meet the von Trapps isn’t nearly as ugly as it’s said to be, but her bizarre slouch boots are altogether inappropriate. The Mother Abbess wears some kind of puzzling, tight-fitting white drape over her shoulders that looks like she just fled from the hairdresser, and all the nuns could move easier with fuller skirts in their habits. Two of the Ms. Fry’s best designs are Maria’s lovely wedding gown and the matching costumes the von Trapps wear to sing in the Festival Concert.
Jeffrey Cass has carefully and warmly directed this production, infusing it with memorable characters, choreographed dimensional staging and a special childlike wonder. An excellent first musical experience for audiences of all ages, this production will impress patrons with its abundance of humor, warmth and musical talent. What makes this production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s classic so special, however, is its intimacy and an honest feeling of family. Audiences should climb every mountain standing in their way to see this production of a true American classic of the musical stage.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented June 12-June 28 by BrightSide Theatre at North Central College’s Meiley-Swallow Hall, 31 S. Ellsworth Ave., Naperville, IL.
Tickets are available by calling the box office at 630-637-7469 or by going to www.brightsidetheatre.com.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.