How do you solve a problem like Maria? By putting her on the Opera House Stage of The John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts this summer! Rogers & Hammerstein’s classic The Sound of Music rolls into the big performance venue for five-week engagement, bringing the timeless tale and iconic songs that the nation has revered in the highest musical regard since Julie Andrews first took up the role on screen in 1965. Directed by Jack O’Brien, this reimagined and newly focused approach to the cherished stage gem presents worlds of insight to the Family von Trapp and the lives they led during a time of world chaos and destruction.
Sight and Sound come together under the creations of Scenic Designer Douglas W. Schmidt, Sound Designer Ken Travis, Lighting Designer Natasha Katz, and Costume Designer Jane Greenwood. The show’s aesthetic is wound very closely into Director Jack O’Brien’s vision. While there isn’t a drastic overhaul to the way the show is presented— it’s still set in Austria just as the Nazis are rising to power— the fluidity with which the pristinely painted scenic fixtures and backdrops move call your attention to the authenticity of the world that has been constructed. Schmidt’s work is astonishing, with rolling abbey scene segments that bolster the illusion of striding down long corridors inside the cloister when in reality the performers cross just a tiny portion of the stage. The views of the mountain and the village both from Georg’s estate and the abbey are breathtaking as well.
Costume Designer Jane Greenwood brings a fair variety of colors to the costumes where scenes and spirits allow for it, particularly in the “curtain clothing” Maria makes for the von Trapp children. Her style is aligned with simplicity; there is nothing overly decadent or posh, not even during the dinner party that is meant to celebrate Elsa Schraeder. Greenwood’s ease of basic designs and tasteful sartorial selections gives the distinct impression of the humble yet steady lives of Austrians at this time, further deepening the impact that such a hostile takeover from Nazi Germany has once things fall into place.
O’Brien’s only real questionable directorial choice is his noticeable lack of the use of accents— from all characters— throughout the production. The Captain has no notably thick Austrian sound as is often expected from his character, nor do the Germans once they arrive. While it is not a completely inappropriate choice to forego accents as the Greenwood’s costume work clearly showcases who is on what side, it feels somewhat out of place and is a slight distraction at times. This aside, O’Brien hones in on the intricate dynamic of each of the characters and how they relate to the others. This is shown most noticeably— and at time a bit too presentational— with Liesl (Paige Silvester) who exudes a sour mood upon being saddled with a new governess. When Maria takes to “Do-Re-Mi”, Silvester makes gestures and facial expressions to set her apart from the group, refusing— until she can resist no longer— to take part in the fun. Nuanced character explorations like this are what brings new life into O’Brien’s production of The Sound of Music.
This same sort of discovery is witnessed with The Mother Abbess (Melody Betts) during “My Favorite Things” as she treats the song like a proper exercise in recollection. Betts, whose angelic voice glistens with the melody of heaven, fiddles her way through the first verse or so of the song as if it were long forgotten from her childhood memory, stammering, and speaking lyrics in starts until Maria helps her recall the words. This is a tender and heartfelt moment that bonds the pair, giving a powerful charge to the scenes wherein they interact later. Betts portrayal of The Mother Abbess overall is delightful; she is strong and stern yet loving and yielding when necessary. And her voice glistens and glows with all things good and holy when she sings, whether in duet with Maria or in group with the other nuns.
The Family von Trapp— or at very least the children (Paige Silvester, Elliot Weaver, Stephanie Di Fiore, James Bernard, Dakota Riley Quackenbush, Taylor Coleman, and Anika Lore Hatch)— are sprightly and delightful the moment the realize Maria is not like other governesses that they’ve experienced in the past. Hatch and Bernard in particular, playing Gretl and Kurt respectively, are simply too cute for words. All seven of the young performers have radiant voices with a good sense of pitch and harmony when it comes to their group songs like “Do-Re-Me” and “The Lonely Goatherd.” Silvester even manages lusty peels of sound during “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” a duet shared with Rolf Gruber (Austin Colby.) With a luminous voice as bright as his smile, Colby performs the song with a cautionary warning in his tone. Colby’s character is another fine example of O’Brien’s closer examination of what’s really happening as right from his introduction his character is played with hidden motives, strange reservations, and unsettling energies that make his defection late in the second act that much more harrowing.
Max (Merwin Foard) and Elsa (Teri Hansen) are a slimy and unsavory match made in heaven. Though Foard is certainly the more conniving of the two, wheeling and working his self-serving angles with every subtle gesture of his hand, flippant phrasing of speech, and note sung from his mouth, the pair are well suited to play opposite one another. Both have bold and robust sounds for “How Can Love Survive?” and “No Way to Stop It.” Hansen, whose high soprano sound is paired in delectable compliment against Foard’s much lower baritone-bass range, brings a stilted edge to the character of Elsa, readily showing her reservations and hesitations where Georg and his personal loyalties are concerned.
When first presented to the audience, Georg von Trapp (Nicholas Rodriguez) is hardly the formidable naval captain which is expected of his character’s description. (This may be largely in part to his lack of Austrian accent) However, there is an honesty so raw and present about him that it’s easily forgiven and the careworn and battle-weary Captain is seen with all of his human flaws on display. This earnest approach to the stock archetype of the Naval Captain is refreshing. Rodriguez, whose stalwart and unbending principals are showcased with exponentially increasing determination bordering on frustrated fury as the Nazi move progresses, has a commanding stage presence all the same, balancing his more severe moments against gentle honest ones where Maria coaxes pure emotion from within him. Rodriguez and Charlotte Maltby— playing the iconic Maria— share a fantastic chemistry which grows and intertwines divinely as their characters shift and change to accept one another in each other’s lives. “Something Good” is touching and spirited, their romantic duet taking live as each sings to the other’s heart.
Maltby, as the chaotically curious and endearingly enigmatic Maria, is stellar. Taking the character of Maria— made famous by so many gods and greats before her— and carefully crafting and molding her into a character that is not only her own but that fits the vision O’Brien has laid down, Maltby reinvents Maria in a fun and fantastical light while still grounding the character in the roots of the story. Her voice is sublime, particularly when singing “My Favorite Things” and during the titular number. Maltby has a delicate charisma and charm when it comes to playing Maria, particularly when first encountering the Captain and especially once it comes to handling the disruption the Nazis create when they storm her house and attempt to tear apart her family. Dulcet of voice, strong of personality, and balanced with her comedy and sincerity, Maltby is a knockout when tackling Maria, and truly brings the hills of Opera House alive with the sound of her music.
The iconic classic won’t be staying long— just five weeks— so be sure to snag your ticket to see The Sound of Music before like a whirling dervish, it’s off to its next stop on the tour!
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours and 50 minutes with one intermission
The Sound of Music plays through July 16, 2017 on the Opera House Stage of The John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts— 2700 F Street NW in Washington, DC. For tickets call the box office at (202) 467-4600 or purchase them online.
To read the interview with Austin Colby as Rolf Gruber, click here.