Few children ever forget the image of a blondish Julie Andrews twirling around the glorious Austrian countryside, and in The Shedd Institute’s winter production of The Sound of Music, the Alps are just as wondrous now as ever.
The Sound of Music, based on real events, follows a young, restless nun named Maria Rainer (Claire Kepple) who lives in the Nonnberg Abbey on an Austrian mountainside. It is 1938, and as the threat of a German invasion looms, Maria struggles to fulfill the expectations of her Mother Abbess (Caitlin Christopher) and her fellow nuns. Maria’s uninhibited personality endears her to the audience, but she sings irrepressibly and without permission, much to the chagrin of the other nuns. The kind-hearted Mother Abbess decides that Maria must spend time outside the abbey to see whether the monastic life is what she wants.
Maria is assigned to be a governess to decorated World War I Capt. Georg von Trapp’s (Dan Pegoda) seven children. All it takes is a thunderstorm and a song about a yodeling goatherd for the children to adore Maria. The captain, however, remains unmoved. Will the strict, militaristic von Trapp warm to Maria? What will happen to Maria and the von Trapps if the Germans invade?
This musical is a classic for a reason. It opened on Nov. 16, 1959, as legendary composers Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II’s final effort together. An immediate success, The Sound of Music ran for 1,443 performances and earned an impressive five Tony Awards, including the coveted Best Musical. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s music and lyrics, performed by a live orchestra, are charming and earnest; they speak to the joy and wonder of childhood. They prove, via Maria’s character, that wonder can be carried into adulthood as well.
Crowd favorites included the saccharine “My Favorite Things” and the playful “Maria.” The only lyrics that don’t age well are from “Sixteen Going on Seventeen.” Rolf Gruber (Matthew Michaels) tells Liesl von Trapp (Jordan Andreason), “You need someone older and wiser telling you what to do” serves as a reminder of mid-century gender roles.
The script by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, while full of many enjoyable moments, is also old-fashioned (1959!), at times painfully so. The age gap between Maria and Captain von Trapp makes their romance hard for a modern audience to root for. In one scene, Maria tells 16-year-old Liesl that she will “belong to a man” in the future. Fans of the movie adaptation should also note that the threat of a Nazi invasion looms more markedly in the stage version than the popular film.
Aided by the wonderful choreography and direction of Heidi Turnquist, the cast, including Turnquist herself as Baroness Elsa von Schraeder, shines. The chemistry between the von Trapp siblings is believable and engaging. Standouts include the adorable Gretl von Trapp (Eliyah Chandler) and the charismatic Louisa von Trapp (Wilder Teague).
But it is the lively talent of Kepple’s Maria that makes this production of The Sound of Music special. Kepple’s Maria is everything that the character should be: unafraid to give the Captain a piece of her mind while simultaneously selfless to a fault. This Maria is vivacious, caring and passionate. A memorable argument between Maria and Captain von Trapp culminates in her informing him in a strained voice that the children “just want to be loved.”
Christopher’s understated performance as the Mother Abbess cannot be overlooked. She has a warm, empathetic presence that aligns with her role as a surrogate mother to Maria. Her respect and love for Maria are palpable in every line she delivers. The best number of the entire musical was Maria and The Mother Abbess’s rendition of “My Favorite Things.” Their voices blended together flawlessly, bringing personality and vigor to a classic song.
The costumes, designed by Anna Björnsdotter, are phenomenal. Memorable fashion moments abound in this production, including Maria’s gorgeous satin wedding dress and her tan embroidered two-piece set. The wedding dress positively glowed under stage lighting, as the audience drew a collective breath.
Set design is crucial in any adaptation of The Sound of Music, as the design must be able to capture the otherworldly beauty of the Austrian countryside. Jim Ralph and Connie Huston prove to be up for the challenge, with their magical depiction of snow-capped Austrian Alps and vivid green hills.
The standing ovation given to conductor Robert Ashens and his live orchestra on opening night was well deserved to say the least.
Though outdated at times, The Shedd’s rendition of The Sound of Music remains charming and immersive. The audience couldn’t help but laugh and sigh along with the characters, portrayed with heart by a talented cast. Maria’s idealism is a breath of fresh air in a world where cynicism prevails. The imminent Nazi threat tinges the childlike wonder of the songs with a layer of melancholy.
Even after all this time, the well worn images of “raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens” make an icy winter night feel warmer all of a sudden.
The Sound of Music continues through Dec. 18 at The Shedd. Tickets and more info at TheShedd.org.