Marie or Maria?

"The hills are alive with the sound of ... paper roses?" That's right, Marie Osmond -- who made her show business debut at age three on The Andy Williams Show; recorded her first country single, "Paper Roses," at 13; and a year later co-hosted with her brother, Donny, the mid-1970s' variety-series success, The Donny and Marie Show -- is starring in the latest national tour of Rodgers and Hammerstein's 1959 Tony Award-winning The Sound of Music. So long, farewell, Utah!

The enduring musical, opening Theatre Under the Stars' 27th season, remains one of American theater's best family entertainments. Based on the true story of the Von Trapp Family Singers, the now-familiar plot deals with Captain Georg Von Trapp, an austere Austrian naval hero and widower, his seven unhappy children and Maria (Osmond), a lively convent postulant sent from her abbey to become the children's governess. Radiating spirit and mindfulness, Maria quickly helps the children learn to carry songs in their hearts. She has a similar effect on Georg and, after a miscommunication or two, they fall in love. With Nazi occupation looming, the new family vows to "Climb Every Mountain" necessary to freedom. Curtain. The range of emotions in Lindsay and Crouse's book dovetails perfectly with the spectrum of sentiments in Rodgers and Hammerstein's songs: cheery "Do Re Mi," precious "So Long, Farewell," touching "Edelweiss."

In the song, "Maria," the nuns wonder, "How do you solve a problem like Maria?" It's fair to wonder similarly about Osmond, since TUTS is going for broke by making her distinctive star-power the draw. So, "How do you solve a problem like Marie?" Meaning what do Osmond, her director and the audience do about the undeniable Osmond persona: wholesomeness with a dash of playfulness, sincerity with a pinch of spunk? The answer, to a certain degree, is nothing, for Osmond's image and Maria's character share those attributes. Thus it almost seems unnecessary to wonder whether we believe Osmond is Maria or whether we're simply witnessing the Osmond persona in another, shrewdly apt, venue.

Whoever we're seeing, there's no denying that Osmond is comfortable on-stage, particularly with the children; she's affectionate with "Do Re Mi" and she frolics in "The Lonely Goatherd." In the upbeat scenes and charming moments, she comes across as a terrific trooper. She also looks great in Jonathan Bixby's affectionate costumes, whether it be a spiffy habit, resplendent wedding gown or hearty mountain togs.

It's in the unfolding drama, however, that this casting gamble seems less a sure thing. Maria experiences numerous incisive episodes, but Osmond favors the safety of simplification. Osmond streamlines, for instance, the complicated feelings Maria has for her surrogate mother, the Mother Abbess. Also, Osmond limits Maria to sadness -- as opposed to heartbreak -- when she's forced to flee the cherished Von Trapp children, however momentarily, because Georg has transported his love for his fiancee onto her. The romance is where Osmond is on shakiest ground. She mutes the awe Maria feels when first meeting a man who's so authoritative that he beckons his children by whistle; in their confrontation scene, she more besets him with his family obligations than stands up to him about them; and when they finally kiss, she just doesn't melt. Because what Osmond exudes is sweetness, and the crux of the issue is that while that takes her far (that, and a hell of a voice), it takes her only so far.

That lack of nuance -- something not all that unusual in family entertainments -- is also evident in most of the rest of the cast. Neal Benari is certainly regal as Georg, but he's not exacting or distant or commanding, as he should be. Georg is supposed to warm up as Maria's influence grows, but the softness behind his rigidity appears almost immediately, thus depriving the production of both a crucial constriction and a subsequent sense of release. Benari's lush singing is lovely but uninflected; this is most noticeable in "Edelweiss," Georg's signature song. Benari approaches its soothing beauty but misses its melancholy defiance.

The kids stay on-key and even harmonize -- no mean feat. Doing what's asked of them as actors, they pay close attention to enunciation. Vanessa Dorman, as Liesl, and Richard H. Blake, as her young suitor Rolf, do deserve mention for nicely conveying the awkward charm of young love in "Sixteen Going on Seventeen." As the Mother Abbess, Claudia Cummings sings her songs like the opera star she is. Keith Jochim is personable as Max, Georg's important but convictionless friend, though Jochim unfortunately substitutes paraded confidence for breezy charm. His singing seems rote, as does Lauren Thompson's; since she makes Elsa, Georg's fiancee, more cipher than socialite, she fails to convey what Georg could possibly see in her.

What director James Hammerstein (the lyricist's son) sees in The Sound of Music is its crowd pleasing timelessness, and he focuses exactly on that. He puts "ah" inducing hugs downstage-center and "ha" inducing reactions everywhere. What the show lacks in emotional depth it makes up for in polished surface, though no thanks to Neil Peter Jampolis' disappointing scenery. The poorly painted backdrops, overused scrims and dull sets are more than just a little worse for wear.

But Osmond isn't. Perhaps what it all comes down to is whether it's worth it to shell out significant bucks to see a star in the flesh rather than wait at home to see the next TV rerun of the 1965 film version. My vote? Osmond. Though she can't hold a candle to Julie Andrews, the magic of live theater is one of my favorite things.

The Sound of Music, presented by Theatre Under the Stars, runs through October 30 at The Music Hall, 810 Bagby, 1-800-766-6048.


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