Review: “The Sound of Music”

Where: Lyric Opera of Chicago, Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive
When: through May 25
Tickets: $29-$199
Phone: 312-332-2244

By M.L. RANTALA
Classical Music Critic

The 1965 movie “The Sound of Music,” starring Julie Andrews, is one of the greatest musicals ever put on film. Millions of people who have seen the screen version but not the original musical might wonder: How can the stage version, without breathtaking scenes in the Alps and glorious views of Salzburg, possibly compete with a movie? Lyric Opera of Chicago has an answer to that question. Their beautifully designed and crafted sets, which glide in and out, up and down, as the scenes change, are the perfect accompaniment to the ever-fresh songs created by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II.

Those unfamiliar with the stage version will also be pleasingly surprised by those elements left out of the film. The original treats the Nazi threat to Austria and to Captain von Trapp’s morality with a bigger thread, including the song “No Way to Stop It,” where Elsa and Max try to convince the captain that it would be best to go along with the Anschluss.

This version also includes “How Can Love Survive?”, a song describing potential problems which could ensue were Elsa and the captain to marry.

There were also two songs written specifically for the film which did not appear in the original musical. Both were written solely by Rodgers, as Hammerstein had by this time died. “I Have Confidence” and “Something Good” have been added to the stage production, perhaps making the version now at Lyric the best of all possible worlds. Added to that, director Marc Bruni has noted, “Shows in the 1950s were written for a very different economic structure than today, when it’s next to impossible for producers to afford a full string section or a stage full of ensemble nuns. Here at Lyric Opera, we are able to give the audience an experience like nothing they could see on Broadway.”

Lyric has paid close attention to the needs of musical theater in casting, placing opera singers in some roles and musical theater stars in others. This generally succeeds, even if a few cast members are weaker than they should be either as actors or singers. Those who dislike amplified singing will be thoroughly disappointed, but as the show proceeds you mostly get used to it.

Jenn Gambatese is a perky, innocent Maria. Her voice is sweet, her movements are appropriately gangly and unsophisticated and she imbues just the kind of warmth which would cause anyone to fall in love with her, children and captains alike. Too bad director Marc Bruni permits too many corny, anachronistic and cheap sorts of humor gestures.

Billy Zane, a Chicago native, does a credible job as Captain von Trapp. Handsome and confident he is, but he has some trouble moving from the admiral-father role to the tender-lover role, remaining rather stiff even in the most romantic moments of the story. For a man with such an impressive resume as an actor, he is far too wooden and uninvested.

Christine Brewer, another Illinois native, was last seen at Lyric Opera in 2007 when she portrayed the Dyer’s Wife in “Die Frau ohne Schatten.” As the Mother Abbess, she gets the most poignant song of the show, “Climb Ev’ry Mountain.” She sings it with conviction and power, closing out both acts with great musical drama. Her spoken scenes are rather bland, lacking wisdom and moral force.

The aloof Elsa Schraeder is engaging played by Elizabeth Futral with the right combination of calculation, chill and calm. She looks utterly gorgeous in every scene, sporting the glorious frocks designed by Alejo Vietti.

Edward Hibbert is a deliciously devious Max Detweiler, offering the same sharp wit viewers of the television sitcom “Frasier” came to love.

Betsy Farrar and Zach Sorrow are the young lovers Liesl and Rolf. Their innocent capers in “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” are a joy.

All of the young actors who play the von Trapp children are adorable and acquit themselves marvelously on stage as both singers and actors.

The production glories in the large Lyric stage, permitting a lighthearted scene with seven kids on seven bicycles, and features a huge assembly of nuns at the end of Act I who fill the house with staggering sound. The various depictions of the abbey are marvelous, the dark wood creating a palpable sense of separation from the world. Set designer Michael Yeargan has done an incredible job.

Rob Fisher leads the orchestra with just the right pacing and creates all the bubbles, squeaks and smiles you could possibly desire.

For those wanting to know still more, the program essay by Roger Pines contains a splendid compendium of facts, including an account of the differences between the true story and the musical. Maria was hired as a tutor for only one of the children, not as governess for the entire brood; She and the Captain had been married for over a decade when they escaped Austria; and so on.

Wanting to make the performances family-friendly, Lyric has made the curtain time earlier than usual (7 p.m.) and the program includes a few puzzles with a “The Sound of Music” theme for kids to work on during the intermission.

This last of the Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musicals does not suffer in the least from familiarity. Take it all in and you’ll understand why it has been so popular since it first premiered in 1959.