(This review is written by American-Statesman freelance art critic Andrew J. Friedenthal.)
On the surface, “The Sound of Music” might seem somewhat dated and hokey for a contemporary audience. The national tour of the recent Broadway revival of the musical, however – playing through Feb. 28 at Bass Concert Hall as a part of the Broadway in Austin series, presented by the University of Texas at Austin and Texas Performing Arts – shows just why and how it has become a classic of the American stage.
With music by Richard Rodgers, lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, and a book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, “The Sound of Music” tells the story of Maria Rainer, a young Austrian nun who becomes the governess to the von Trapp family of precocious children. Naturally, in classic romantic comedy fashion, Maria and the children’s father, Captain Georg von Trapp, butt heads, fall in love and escape from Nazi Germany. This story – based on the real life story of the musical von Trapp family – deals in themes of love, faith, nationalism, endurance in the face of danger and, ultimately, the healing and redemptive power of music.
Director Jack O’Brien has taken this well-worn piece of musical theater and emphasized the aspects that still speak to modern audiences, thereby highlighting the timeless quality of the work of Rodgers and Hammerstein. In this case, that means that the second act of “The Sound of Music” packs a much stronger emotional punch than the first, an aspect of the play that has always been slightly problematic (which is perhaps why it worked so well as a film that isn’t tied to a two-act structure). The von Trapp family’s increasing conflict with – and ultimate flight from – the Nazi Party as it occupies Austria leads to some powerful imagery that reminds us of the terrifying power of ideology and demagoguery, and the vital need to fight back against them.
Of course, none of this imagery would mean anything without strong actors creating characters we care about, and this production has quite a few outstanding performances. Kerstin Anderson, as Maria, is truly a delight, filled with optimism and energy (perhaps almost too much energy at times, with an overly exaggerated physicality that doesn’t play as well in quieter moments). She is at her most charming when interacting with the various von Trapp children, all of whom provide strong, frequently adorable, performances. Their father is played with equal amounts of charm and strength by Ben Davis. The standout performers, though, are Paige Silvester, as the eldest child, Liesl, whose specificity of movement and expression create the role with the precision of a ballet dancer; Ashley Brown as the Mother Abbess, whose quiet joy springs forth in a stunning and radiant voice; and Merwin Foard as Georg’s friend Max Detweiler, a charming yet somewhat slimy operator who ingratiates himself to the Nazis as much as to the audience.
The Broadway tour of “The Sound of Music” is a by-the-books presentation of a Rodgers & Hammerstein classic that, while not pushing any boundaries of musical theater, nonetheless charms and moves with its simple, joyful dignity.
“The Sound of Music” continues through Feb. 28. texasperformingarts.org