The Sound of Music: Nuns, Nazis and Alps, Oh My!

No matter how many times you've seen the final collaboration of Broadway titans Rodgers and Hammerstein, The Sound of Music (1959), either onstage or the gargantuan movie version (1965), there's usually something new to appreciate, one tiny detail that makes the show click.

Filled as it is with revered standards that have entered our consciousness and refuse to leave – the title song, “Climb Ev'ry Mountain,” “Do-Re-Mi,” “The Lonely Goatherd,” “My Favorite Things,” “Edelweiss” – the show is hardly the immortal team's greatest effort, beset by a sentimental libretto from another ace team, Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse (Pulitzer Prize-winning duo of State of the Union, Life With Father, Arsenic and Old Lace, Call Me Madam). Dealing with nuns, Nazis and an lovable septet of musical kids, it's an unbeatable combination, though: evil villains, heartwarming family drama, and a rich, inspirational overlay of religiosity. You might hate the show for its cloying sweetness, but its power is undeniable. In no way will it ever be far absent from the stage.

In this new Jack O'Brien touring production, the best version since the iconic original that starred legendary Mary Martin and a guitar-strumming Theodore Bikel, Music sings triumphantly. It's as sweet as you remember, you can't stage that out of it, but it has two things going for it that lift the show into invigorating new territory.

One is young Kerstin Anderson as Maria. Literally plucked out of college, where she's studying musical theater, Anderson possesses remarkable freshness, a glorious soprano and the ability to make her character seem improvised. Watch – and listen – as she schools the kids in “Do-Re-Mi.” Not only does she use sign language, a lovely blithe touch, but she seems to make up those similes as she goes. You know, “Do, a deer...Re, a drop of golden sun...” We believe she's thinking them up on the spur of the moment. Everything else she does is so infused with this aura of surprise and innocence. I hope she never loses this invaluable quality. It's rare. And she's going to be very busy in the future, I predict. Martin had unique stage presence that was its own form of stage magic, and she could make you believe she was a young girl from the convent, but Anderson is young, dewy, feisty, all the things Maria should be. It's no wonder Captain von Trapp (Ben Davis) falls for her.

And what a glorious Mother Abbess this tour has in Ashley Brown, Broadway's original Mary Poppins. She also has stage magic and phenomenal pipes. R&H's great anthem, “Climb Ev'ry Mountain,” has never sounded so radiantly uplifting, so warm and maternal. Brown has that same mischievous twinkle I remember from her Mary not so long ago (2006). Her Abbess fills the Hobby with sun.

Okay, make that three things: director O'Brien and his A-plus team. This is a Tony Award-winning Who's Who, and these stage wizards have done exceptional work to distill Music into a fluid, shape-shifting eyeful: Douglas W. Schmidt (42nd Street) on sets, Jane Greenwood (Lifetime Achievement) on costumes, Natasha Katz (An American in Paris) on lighting, Robert Russell Bennett (Special Tony for Historic Contribution) on orchestrations. The abbey is a gothic arch and stained glass; lace panels decorate the edges; the von Trapp villa is all windows and winding staircase; the Alps a Maxfield Parrish extravaganza. The look is coherent, reserved, but just enough.

Naturally, or preternaturally, the kids are adorable, producing “awws” from the audience with their easy charm. Not to choose one cute tyke over another, but little Svea Elizabeth Johnson, as truth-telling Brigitta, steals her scenes like a pro. Davis is a commanding, manly Captain, and his haunting “Edelweiss” is a true highlight. And it's always good to hear R&H's snide side in Elsa and Max's “How Can Love Survive” and “No Way to Stop It,” numbers dropped from the film to make room for more vistas of Salzburg. It gives the musical a needed layer of adult content.

This legendary show plays in Houston for only a few performances. If, Sweet Mother Superior, you've never seen the show live, by all means go – and definitely take the kids if you have any. The Hobby was packed opening night with all ages, from six to 96, and at the end they were all smiling. I guarantee you'll leave humming the songs. The little girl sitting next to me liked, in order of appearance, the thunderstorm, “The Lonely Goatherd” and the boys suddenly appearing from under the bed. She did not like the barking Nazi. You won't either. But everything else is a favorite thing.

The Sound of Music. Through February 21. Broadway at the Hobby, Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby. For more information, call 800-952-6560 or visit $40-$115.
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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