Stage

In A.D. Player's Production of The Sound of Music the Word That Means Maria is Wonderful

Claire Marie Spencer as Maria and Brad Goertz as Captain von Trapp in the A.D. Players' production of The Sound of Music.
Claire Marie Spencer as Maria and Brad Goertz as Captain von Trapp in the A.D. Players' production of The Sound of Music. Photo by Jeff McMorrough Photography

A star is born with Claire Marie Spencer, as Maria in A.D. Player's superlative production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's immortal The Sound of Music.

If you're one of the few who find The Sound of Music below your taste – I understand. Those preening, scene-stealing child actors – seven of them – singing nuns, brutal Nazis, teen love, a house without music, “a lark who is learning to pray,” or whiskers on kittens, can be a bit much to take. From 1959, this last collaboration from titans Rodgers and Hammerstein, the great partnership that forever changed Broadway musicals, is the team's most conventional work. It's not ground-breaking like Oklahoma, or adult like South Pacific, nor as diverse as Flower Drum Song, or emotional as The King and I, or controversial as Carousel. (Me and Juliet and Allegro are anomalies, since who's ever seen them since their premieres?)

Music, created by a host of Broadway pros, is '50s Broadway raised to a very high pinnacle. It's not on auto-pilot, it's too good for that – and those songs are firmly ensconced in the Great American Songbook – but it's not their best, either, so it becomes a little disappointing as their farewell. But then there's that movie, Robert Wise's 1965 cinematic behemoth that has become one of the all-time film favorites.

But what's Music without a charismatic Maria? Think Mary Martin or Julie Andrews. Add Claire Marie Spencer to that roster of A-listers. What a glorious performance, what a glorious voice. She's a strong Maria, determined and sure. Young, innocent, and full of spirit, even when doubts of love derail her at the end of Act I, her Maria will not be deterred. Following Mother Abbess's musical advise to “Climb ev'ry mountain...ford every stream...till you find your dream,” she marches back into Georg's heart. How could he refuse her?

And that voice. Pure crystal with an ethereal tinge of Julie Andrews. She's a revelation and ev'ry reason to see this production. (Unfortunately, we won't see her again – except in a future touring show, perhaps – for she's off to the Great White Way to make her fame and fortune.) I can't imagine she won't make it, she's got it all, and I'm glad to have seen her. You should also be so fortunate. Don't miss her. You'll regret it if you do. It's a stunning performance.

A.D. Players has filled the roles with a Houston talent pool: Brad Goertz as Captain von Trapp, beautiful of voice in “Edelweiss”; Julia Laskowski as Mother Abbess who nails her earth-mother anthem, “Climb Ev'ry Mountain”; Haley Slaton as Baroness Elsa; Pamela Vogel and Joel Sandel, who skulk about as Nazi wanna-be's Franz and Schmidt; Jeff McMorrough and Mark Ivy (swing) as Nazi officers von Schreiber and Herr Zeller; Doug Atkins, as compromised friend Max Detweiler; young Adam Kral as Lisle's love Rolf.

And then there are those children. All seven of them. All adorable, I must say. (Taylor Aronson, Anna Austin, Everett Baumgarten, Kai Desel, Norah Nunes, Macie Speer, Mackenzie West.) They don't steal all the scenes they're in, they don't have to. We watch them instinctively, because they're so good. Kudos to director Speck who's kept them natural and cringe-free. They have a wondrous glee to them, giggling and laughing without a trace of ham, working within the scene without any false pretense. They're troupers. Keep at it, kids.

Allow me two rants:

What is that gray pile of wilted whipped cream that runs across the full length of the background? Is this melted heap supposed to represent those majestic peaks near Salzburg, Austria? Has scenic designer Jon Young, who has an impressive resume, ever seen the glorious Austrian Alps? It's neither Olympian nor awe-inspiring. It leaves a bad taste, for the production is first rate in all other areas.

Except for the accents. Rant number two. Everybody sounds American – the kids, Maria, Georg, Mother Abbess and the nuns, Baroness Elsa. All except the outright Nazis or their fellow collaborators, Franz and Frau Schmidt. They speak, when not bellowing, as if they've stepped out of Triumph of the Will. This has to have been a conscious decision of director/choreographer Emily Tello Speck, who throughout only chooses the right path. (She directed and choreographed A.D.'s superlative, explosive West Side Story in 2019.) Only the rabid Nazis speak with a German accent. If everyone in this musical has been born in Austria, why don't they, also, speak like a bus-and-truck Otto Preminger? Shouldn't they all speak the same way? Unless your character is a foreigner, just talk like your audience.

Now back to the raves:

The lushness of the original Robert Russell Bennett orchestrations is pared to 13 musicians, but the sound is full and grand under maestro Stephen J. Jones. Though sparse in look, Young's set design (except for that mountain) is just sparse enough: arches for the Abbey, a staircase and window frames for the villa, balustrades and potted urns for the terrace, Art Deco eagle and swastika pennants for the concert hall. Nothing else is needed,

Speck's choreography is a pleasure. Liesl and Rolf's “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” is balletic without overdoing it, including a difficult moving bicycle sequence; the Ländler dance between Maria and Georg is simple but effective as it's the moment the couple's love is mutually discovered; and “Do-Re-Me” and “The Lonely Goatherd” (Hammerstein's most inventive lyrics, echoing W.S. Gilbert) are constructed with silky mastery.

Whatever you might think of the merits of The Sound of Music, A.D. Players delivers a definitive production. Yes, singing nuns, children, and Nazis are a fearful mix, but those classic tunes and that fabulous star turn by Claire Marie Spenser make it one of “my favorite things.”

Performances continue through August 14 at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, and 2:30 p.m. Sundays at A.D. Players at The George, 5420 Westheimer. For more information, call 713-526-2721 or visit adplayers.org. $36-$75.
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D.L. Groover has contributed to countless reputable publications including the Houston Press since 2003. His theater criticism has earned him a national award from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN) as well as three statewide Lone Star Press Awards for the same. He's co-author of the irreverent appreciation, Skeletons from the Opera Closet (St. Martin's Press), now in its fourth printing.
Contact: D. L. Groover