The Sound of Music

At the Lyric Opera of Chicago

By Dan Zeff

Chicago – The Lyric Opera of Chicago is presenting “The Sound of Music,” immediately bringing to the forefront the question of how well this Broadway musical fits into the expansive opera house space. Would the production lend the musical an operatic aura too heavy for the original show? Or, on the other hand, would installing this Broadway classic without alteration in the cavernous home of grand opera diminish its impact?

         As it turns out, the revival is just fine, blending some operatic touches into a staging that is still preserves the qualities that made it such a commercial success at the Broadway level. Director Marc Bruni serves as the intelligent caretaker of the production, recognizing that one need not create a revisionist vision of “The Sound of Music” while still having the freedom to add welcome embellishments.

So, audiences shouldn’t expect surprises in the staging, which is all to the good. The staging does inject two numbers normally omitted, the Maria solo “I’m Confident” in the first act and her duet with Captain von Trapp—“Something Good”—in the second act. The nuns in residence at the abbey usually number under 10 for economic reasons but at the Lyric we get a full two dozen wimpled women, adding considerable musical luster to the liturgical singing.

               

                          Photo by Todd Rosenberg.

The production still follows young Maria as she leaves an abbey in Austria, where she hopes to become a nun, to serve as the governess in the von Trapp family, specifically to teach the seven children of the widower Captain von Trapp, an Austrian navy hero. The captain runs his household like a military martinet, treating his seven young children as troops who require the most demanding discipline. In the fullness of time, Maria wins the love of the initially distrustful children and marries the captain.

What struck me the mot strongly about the Lyric production was its positioning the children as the centerpiece of the story. Maria obviously is important and so are some of the supporting characters, but the story blossoms every time the youthful ensemble takes the stage. It’s a subtle emphasis, enhanced by choreographer Denis Jones’s skill at creating dances that perfectly suit the young performers, from teenager Liesl (Betsy Farrar) down to tiny tot Gretl (Nicole Scimeca). Their interaction with Jenn Gambatese’s Maria in the musical numbers is a continuous joy. I’ve never seen the “Do-Re-Mi” song and dance piece done more infectiously. But then I’ve never seen seven more talented youngsters delivering the challenging ensemble songs so fluently.

Giambatese plays Maria as an endearing gamin, her petite figure enclosing a singing voice of considerable potency and expressiveness. The celebrity star of the production is Billy Zane as the captain. Zane sings passably but he doesn’t bring much dominating presence to the role of the initially intimidating captain. Edward Hibbert is first rate as Max Detweiler, the droll music impresario and the captain’s close friend. Elizabeth Futral is fine as Elsa Schraeder, the worldly rich lady who for a bit looks like the next wife of the captain and the mother of his children, until Maria’s unforced charms send her packing.

               

                                                           Photo by Todd Rosenberg.

      The major operatic contribution comes from Christine Brewer, a singer with international opera and concert experience. The mother abbess is in the show mainly to sing “Climb Ev’ry Mountain,” which is tied with “You’ll Never Walk Alone” from “Carousel” as the major choke-up song in the Rodgers and Hammerstein canon. Brewer gives it the full opera treatment, to the whooping pleasure of the spectators.

         But the most valuable player award for the revival’s success belongs collectively to the seven young performers. In addition to Betsy Farrar and Nicole Scimeca, they are Brady Tutton (Friedrich), Julia Schweizer (Louisa), Michael Harp (Kurt), Kylee Hennes (Marta), and Isabelle Roberts (Brigitta). It was also nice to see a few staples of Chicagoland musical theater in the production, like Mary Ernster, Cory Goodrich, Dev Kennedy, Susan Moniz, Rob Hunt, Michael Weber, and Bernie Yvon.

The audience at Sunday matinee press opening was awash in girls, mostly from ages 8 to early teens. They seemed entranced by the show, or at least I didn’t hear a chirp of noise throughout the show from any of the youths, except for a weepy infant who never should have been brought to the theater. For many of the young viewers, this must have been their introduction to adult live theater, and what an introduction, sitting in an auditorium that seats almost 3,500 people in a vast interior with a main floor and three balconies. It may be hard returning to the simpler pleasures of a Saturday morning fairy tale musical at a local suburban theater.

The sometimes underestimated Rodgers and Hammerstein score is illuminated by the full opera orchestra, a perk that audiences don’t normally enjoy in local revivals. Michael Yeargan designed the set, Alejo Vietti the costumes, Duane Schuler the lighting, and Mark Grey the sound plan.

“The Sound of Music” has been criticized for its sentimentality, which the Lyric production does nothing to minimize. Yes, the musical has its sentimental side, but Bruni keeps it carefully within bounds, especially in his refusal the milk the von Trapp children for cutesy laughs. It’s a show that need make no excuses for its warmth, abetted by a terrific score and at times a wry sense of humor. All those merits are served up in an uncondescending, highly entertaining staging that draws on the strengths of both the opera and Broadway musical worlds.

“The Sound of Music” runs through May 25 at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, 20 North Wacker Drive. Most performances are Tuesday and Friday at 7 p.m., Wednesday and Sunday at 1:30 p.m., and Thursday and Saturday at 1:30 and 7 p.m. Tickets are $29 to $199. Call 312 827 5600 or visit lyricopera.org/soundofmusic.

The show gets a rating of 3½  stars           April 2014

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