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THE SOUND OF MUSIC at Shea’s refreshes a classic

THE BASICS:  THE SOUND OF MUSIC, a touring production of the Broadway musical presented by Shea’s Performing Arts Center and Albert Nocciolino, directed by Jack O’Brien, opened on March 28th and runs through Sunday, April 2, with remaining performances Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8, Sat at both 2 & 8, and Sunday at both 2 and 7 at Shea’s Performing Arts Center, 646 Main Street. Runtime: a bit over 2-1/2 hours with one 20-minute intermission (full bar, coffee and cookies, and warm cinnamon glazed cashews, pecans, or almonds (mmmm). (1-800-745-3000). www.sheas.org

THUMBNAIL SKETCH:  This is the beloved musical story with its Tony®, Grammy®, and Academy Award® winning Best Score, including, in order, “The Sound of Music,” “My Favorite Things,” “Do-Re-Mi,” “Sixteen Going On Seventeen,” “The Lonely Goatherd,” “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” and, very late in Act II “Edelweiss.” Set in Austria in 1938, on the eve of the Nazi invasion, it’s about the big hearted, impetuous orphan Maria, her struggles as a postulant in a convent, and how she brings love and music back into the von Trapp Family. It combines some of musical theater’s favorite themes – “orphans,” “rags to riches,” “nanny who brings an unhappy family together,” “let’s put on a show,” and a “love story that we see coming a mile away while the principals are clueless.” Throw in music and lyrics by Rodgers and Hammerstein and you’ve got gold in them that hills, which are alive with the sound of music.

THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: The original 1959 Broadway musical starred Mary Martin and Theodore Bikel. The movie starring Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer, which you’ve probably seen, came out in 1965. And you were probably among the reported 44 million TV viewers when NBC carried this production (with different cast) as “The Sound of Music Live!” in December, 2013. Unfortunately, that television event was miscast, with country singer Carrie Underwood praised for her voice, but panned for her wooden acting. What made it worse was that the fabulous six-time Tony Award® winning Audra McDonald overshadowed everyone in her role of The Mother Abbess. But, that’s all in the past.

This is a brand-new touring, stage production of THE SOUND OF MUSIC directed by three-time Tony Award® winner Jack O’Brien.

At work our performance reviews have three columns: “Exceeds Expectations,” “Meets Expectations,” and “Areas for Improvement.” So let’s look at those categories, although Charlotte Maltby as Maria rose through all three categories. Starting with “Really? She’s just not right for this role” to my, along with all the von Trapps on stage, and, as far as I could tell, the entire audience, falling totally in love with her. My problem at first was that Maltby has that nasal, saucy, “Broadway” voice that seemed appropriate for more “worldly” roles, not this orphan girl who sings to herself in the mountains and likes “bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens.” But, then, over the course of the evening she must have “the right stuff” to win the heart of a decorated naval captain who has “shut down” after the death of his wife. To fit the backstory he must be at least twice Maria’s age, but it has to feel right when they dance the ländler (less formal than the waltz but the signature dance of Austria). It’s a key moment and it works. And by the two final scenes, first in the Austrian dirndl and then in the traveling suit with the blond wig and the hat, all styled very late 1930s (Jane Greenwood, costumes) I was a believer.

EXCEEDED EXPECTATIONS: The sets by Douglas W. Schmidt combined painted drops with actual 3 dimensional props in the cleverest way, so that almost every scene change had me wondering “wow, how did they do that?” On the stage of Shea’s we’ve seen construction-heavy sets (NEWSIES), projected image sets (AN AMERICAN IN PARIS), but this set used the good old fly system in a refreshing new way.

The sets by Douglas W. Schmidt combined painted drops with actual 3 dimensional props in the cleverest way, so that almost every scene change had me wondering ‘wow, how did they do that?’

The music (with orchestrations by the legendary Robert Russell Bennett) made full use of the small orchestra with three synthesizer keyboards but “real” musicians too: six winds, four strings, three brass, and percussion. I’m not a big fan of kids on stage and my expectations were low, but the young performers who play the seven von Trapp children were very enjoyable, not annoyingly “stage cute.” If I liked them, you’ll probably love them. Also, a memorable moment came with the Maria – Mother Abbess duet of “My Favorite Things” where the whole was greater than the sum of its parts. And, at the end, although it’s a small thing, the orchestrated curtain calls were snappy and professional.

MEETS EXPECTATIONS: Two great male roles are that of Franz, the Butler, and Darren Matthias plays it with all the long-suffering haughtiness that the part deserves, and Max Detweiler, the impresario who is always looking out for himself, played with perfect insouciance by Merwin Foard. My expectations were high and they delivered. Melody Betts as The Mother Abbess has great pipes and great acting skills in a role that requires nuance. She must be large and in charge of the nunnery, but also sympathetic to Maria, and then she has to be just one of the gals when she sings “My Favorite Things.”

AREAS FOR IMPROVEMENT: I’m not a big fan of the orchestra pit at Shea’s. Whether it’s the Buffalo Philharmonic playing THE NUTCRACKER or this orchestra, heavy on synthesizers, winds, and brass, the sound is muffled. I’m not sure how that can be fixed, but the first step, as they say, is admitting that you have a problem. I thought that the character of Captain Georg von Trapp was not well directed. Yes, when we meet him he’s an important Austrian military man with a huge estate and a large family who is also a widower. Kind of a stiff. But other than the dance scene, he never really loosens up. I also have a quibble with the full vibrato singing of the cloistered nuns in the convent (the “Preludium” in Act I and the “Gadeamus Domino” in Act II). Church singing should be pure in tone, not operatic. We all know what Gregorian Chant sounds like, and this was not that. And, this is just personal, I really can’t stand the “So Long, Farewell” song. Never liked it. And not only is it integral to the plot but it’s also important that it be sung twice.

So, I have my issues, but I left feeling very happy with this thought: that even though in high school we put on musicals by Lerner & Loewe and Meredith Wilson and the only R&H musicals I remember were OKLAHOMA and CAROUSEL, in my mind, I felt as though we must have done THE SOUND OF MUSIC, because it felt so “right” being there at Shea’s. Hey, it’s Rodgers and Hammerstein. What more do you need to know?

Broadway musicals coming next to Shea’s are CABARET (4/25-4/30), WICKED (5/7 – 6/4), and THE LITTLE MERMAID (8/15 – 8/20).

*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)

ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.

TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.

THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.

FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.

FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!

Written by Peter Hall

Peter Hall

Peter Hall continues trying to figure out how "it" all works. For 20 years, as program host on Classical 94.5 WNED and continuing on-stage with the Buffalo Chamber Music Society, he's conducted over 1,000 interviews with artists as he asks them to explain, in layman's terms, "what's the big picture here?"

As mentioned recently in Buffalo Spree magazine, Peter's "Buffalo Rising reviews are the no-holds barred 'everyman's' take." And, on “Theater Talk” (heard Friday mornings at 6:45 and 8:45 a.m. on WBFO 88.7 FM and Saturday afternoons at 5:55 p.m. on Classical 94.5 WNED) his favorite question of co-host Anthony Chase is simply "What's goin' on?"

A member of Buffalo's Artie Awards Committee, Peter holds a B.A. in Comparative Literature from Columbia University and an M.B.A. from SUNY at Buffalo. For over twenty-five years he has been an adjunct professor for Canisius College’s Richard J. Wehle School of Business.

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