Music, and edelweiss, and a somber sound of history

Elisa Matthews as Maria, Brad Little as Captain von Trapp in the Media Theatre's "The Sound of Music." The leads, the children, the singing nuns are all in fine voice, and the dark reality of 1938 Austria is underscored. But the production has no choreography, and needs it.
Elisa Matthews as Maria, Brad Little as Captain von Trapp in the Media Theatre's "The Sound of Music." The leads, the children, the singing nuns are all in fine voice, and the dark reality of 1938 Austria is underscored. But the production has no choreography, and needs it. (CHRIS JORDAN)
Posted: November 29, 2011

A joke among diabetics is that we're not allowed to see The Sound of Music because of all the sugar. Well, there's plenty of the sweet stuff, but after adjusting my insulin pump at Media Theatre, something I'd forgotten hit me as the show progressed: its clear, dark side.

The Sound of Music may be tra-la-la in a way that fogs all but the most rose-colored lenses, yet it's set in 1938 Austria, and as the plot creeps forward so does the German march on Europe. The tenor of the musical changes, at first subtly and then more so, until the ending, when it's clear that Austria will for all purposes lose its sovereignty. Patrick Ludt's production does a nice job with the serious side; putting storm troopers in the theater's aisles for the last few minutes strikingly makes the point.

I wish the rest of the production could be as refined - and here I'm addressing the sugar. Richard Rodgers' music and Oscar Hammerstein's lyrics are bouncy and indelible; the title song, plus "Do-Re-Mi," "My Favorite Things," and others work nicely with the pleasant book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse. But the production is awkwardly static at times - off a beat, though not musically.

No choreographer is listed, and one is needed. The seven von Trapp kids, under the care of their spunky new governess, Maria (the wonderfully songbird-voiced Elisa Matthews), should have more to do as she turns them from a group of repressed automatons into a bunch of happy, musical kids. When lovely Greta Bradbury, playing Liesl, the oldest, and AJ Kiehner, as a telegraph delivery boy, break into dance in "Sixteen Going on Seventeen" it's like an afterthought, not a reverie sparked by young love. They're also stuck in strangely fixed stage lighting, sometimes moving in the shadows.

More's the pity for these and other moments - at Sunday's matinee, it was even unclear whether the show was over during a lapsed beat between the action and a curtain call that could have come on like gangbusters.

Many elements of the production that otherwise shine are held back by these uneven qualities. Robert J. Klimowski's inventive set morphs impressively from convent to von Trapp mansion to concert hall, aided by rear-wall projections, and Erica Hoelscher's costumes stand out, especially those for the kids. The children themselves (18 of them rotate performances throughout the run), as well as eight fine singing nuns and the rest of the cast, are in mighty voice - the sound of the music in this Sound of Music is the production's most solid feature.

Brad Little (he played the title role in Broadway's Phantom of the Opera) is Captain von Trapp, Barbara McCulloh is his initial love interest, Dan Schiff plays a hanger-on who arranges a big music competition. And watch out for a powerhouse, April Woodall, playing the mother abbess who encourages Maria to follow her heart. When she gets into "Climb Every Mountain," you'd better start climbing, and fast.


The Sound of Music

Through Jan. 15 at Media Theatre, 104 E. State St. Tickets: $54. Information: 610-891-0100 or www.mediatheatre.org.


Contact staff writer Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727, hshapiro@phillynews.com, or #philastage on Twitter.

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