The Sound of Music: decorative Nazis, delirious music

The Arts Club is presenting The Sound of Music at the Stanley Industrial Alliance Theatre

Houston, we have lift-off!
Maria (Synthia Yusuf) and the von Trapp children sing “Do-Re-Mi”.
(Photo by Emily Cooper)

Going into the Arts Club’s production of The Sound of Music I could hardly have been more resistant. I doubt you could find a more conventional, less adventuresome Christmas show. And the politics of The Sound of Music are weird: it tells the story of the Nazi invasion of Austria — without so much as an oblique reference to the persecution of Jews or any of the other groups the Nazis were rounding up and terrorizing at the time. The Sound of Music examines the Anschluss from the point of view of the Baron von Trapp, a nobleman of extraordinary inherited wealth who seems to object to the Nazi presence primarily on the basis of territoriality — and the Nazis’ rudeness.

So, you know, I was grumpy.

But I’ll be damned if director Ashlie Corcoran’s production didn’t win me over.

Not that it starts well. The opening scenes, in which Maria is a novice in a convent, are too cutesy by half. In these scenes, Synthia Yusuf plays Maria as if she’s about ten years old: Yusuf keeps crinkling up her nose as if everything Maria likes — including the Alps — is as darling as a kitten. And, in musical numbers, including “Maria” (“How do you handle a problem like …”), choreographer Shelley Stewart Hunt makes the nuns dance so busily they look like penguins who’ve escaped from Mary Poppins. Corcoran, who’s overseeing all of this, even allows Maria and the Mother Abbess to happily plop their bums down on the Mother Abbess’s desk and swing their legs. Then the nuns go all starchy and march around like automatons because they’re really, you know, severe. Corcoran isn’t building any sense of coherence or realism here; she’s just creating momentary effects. And, as a result of her choices, there’s not enough contrast between the supposed containment of the abbey and the boisterousness of the von Trapp household.

But then the kids arrive and save the day. On opening night, this production clicked into gear so definitively with “Do-Re-Mi”, the first song that Maria sings with the von Trapp children, that you could practically hear the clunk. That’s partly because it feels like Maria is engaging in recognizable human relationships for the first time — Yusuf and the young actors seem to be genuinely enjoying one another — and partly because the kids are so damn cute (like make-you-cry-they’re-so-cute cute).

Naomi Tan, who’s playing Gretl, the youngest, is a little firecracker when she needs to be and felt-headed and ready for bed when that’s what’s called for. And they’re all confident: Xandrie Umandal who plays Kurt, for instance, is a fearless actor and great belter. (Corcoran has used colour-blind casting, which opens the door to a whole lot of talent.)

With “Do-Re-Mi” choreographer Hunt hits her stride, delivering dance that’s both divertingly original and suited to the narrative: the “does” in “Do-Re-Mi” prance about like giddy deer. And Hunt just keeps it comin’: I also particularly enjoyed her playfully mechanical setting of “The Lonely Goatherd”.

Yusuf leaves the nose crinkling behind and settles into a more mature performance, which allowed me enjoy into the liquid power of her big soprano — and the effortlessness of its production.

I opened myself to the beauty of the music and the irresistible schmaltziness of the story, which is really about familial love — with a few Nazis thrown in to increase the tension.

There are stand-out elements, including Annie Ramos’s barn-burning rendition of “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” — now that’s what you call an Act 1 closer! — and Drew Facey’s spectacular set, which transforms with diva-like grace from an abbey complete with a rose window to the von Trapp mansion, and, chillingly (thanks partly to Itai Erdal’s always-attentive lighting), to a swastika-strewn stadium at the Salzburg Festival.

Overall, the acting performances are strong enough to keep things afloat. Playing Elsa Schraeder, the wealthy woman who rivals Maria for the Baron’s love, Meghan Gardiner finds a surprising amount of warmth and wit. And, following up on a strong debut season at Bard on the Beach, Jason Sakaki impresses once again as Rolf, the Nazi-sympathizing boy who delivers telegrams to the mansion. In “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” be proves that, among his many talents, he’s a song and dance man.

Jolene Bernardino, who’s playing Liesl von Trapp, Rolf’s love interest, fares less well. She can sing but her acting is flatly colloquial. And Corcoran really shouldn’t have cast Jonathan Winsby as the Baron: Winsby’s resting state is palpable amiability so, when he’s trying to be strict and militaristic, it’s a bit of a joke. But his voice is like a big velvet room and, when Winsby opens that door — as he does in “Edelweiss” — you can’t help but saunter in and cozy down.

The Sound of Music isn’t the great musical I thought it was when I was 13. Watching it this time, I couldn’t believe the rudimentary nature of the plot: one minute, the Baron is a harsh disciplinarian, and the next he’s singing with his kids. Daddy’s home! But The Sound of Music knows how to push buttons; I’ve got big ones and, despite my resistance, Ashlie Corcoran’s freshly playful production pushed ‘em.

THE SOUND OF MUSIC Music by Richard Rodgers. Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II. Book by Howard Lindsay and Russell Crouse. Directed by Ashlie Corcoran. An Arts Club Theatre production. At the Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage on Wednesday, November 13. Continues until January 5. Tickets.

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About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

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