Review: “The Sound of Music”

RECOMMENDED

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

By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater Critic

I had very high hopes for “The Sound of Music,” the second annual installment in Lyric Opera of Chicago’s five-part American Musical Theater Initiative. After all, the resources available for this new production of the last collaboration between Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II would be the envy of any Broadway impresario and well beyond the reach of smaller theaters.

Some of these resources have been put to good use, starting with the 37-piece orchestra under conductor Rob Fisher. The large choir of nuns that opens the show and reappears for the wedding of Maria Rainer and Captain von Trapp surpasses any I’ve seen. And director Marc Bruni has done a generally good job of melding the worlds of opera and musical theater.

The ensemble successfully brings together opera luminaries, such as Christine Brewer as the Mother Abbess — her “Climb Every Mountain” really soars — and Elizabeth Futral as Elsa Schraeder, and Broadway stars including Jenn Gambatese as Maria and Billy Zane as Captain von Trapp. Fans of local theater will also recognize stalwarts like Mary Ernster (Frau Schmidt), Dev Kennedy (Franz), and Cory Goodrich (Sister Margaretta).

Michael Yeargan’s terrific scenic design takes full advantage of Lyric’s enormous stage. With the help of lighting designer Duane Schuler, he crafts settings that have real depth and dimension, among them the Nonnberg Abbey and the von Trapp villa nestled among majestic mountains. The scale also facilitates arresting visual images that sometimes reflect the characters’ moods. For example, when the apprehensive Maria arrives at the villa for the first time, the set moves forward, looming imposingly as she sings “I Have Confidence.” Perhaps most importantly, the many scene changes are smooth as silk, thanks to the theater’s technical capabilities as well as Yeargan’s design.

Gambatese makes a thoroughly engaging Maria. Comparatively petite, she’s very girlish at the outset, so that in her initial encounters with the children, she almost seems like one of them, even in her stubborn determination to make the Captain see that his ignoring them and strict discipline are hurting everyone. As the story unfolds, she gradually matures, until at the end she’s taking charge of the family’s escape.

Gambatese also has a good enough voice to handle the classic numbers, including the title song, “Do Re Mi,” and “My Favorite Things,” which she sings with the Abbess in this recreation of the 1959 original Broadway production rather than with the children as in the beloved 1965 film. At the opening, though, she seemed ill-at-ease in her first scene, standing downstage and raising her arms up and down rather than dancing among the mountains, or at least in front of them.

In fact, Bruni’s blocking is rather stodgy throughout, and I kept waiting for him to take a few risks and exercise more imagination. The only noticeable innovation is the scene in which the children ride matching bicycles on stage. They’re charmingly but not cloyingly played by Betsy Farrar (Liesl), Brady Tutton (Friedrich), Julia Schweizer (Louisa), Michael Harp (Kurt), Isabelle Roberts (Brigitta), Kylee Henses (Marta), and cute-as-a-button Nicole Scimeca (Gretl).

Denis Jones’ choreography doesn’t really stand out either, except for the appropriately awkward shyness of the “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” dance between Rolf (Zach Sorrow) and Liesl, the eldest of the von Trapp children, and the romantic tension of the first dance between Maria and the captain, which later causes the smart bookworm Brigitta to observe that they’re in love. Unfortunately, that’s the only time Gambatese and Zane seem to generate any heat. He captures Captain von Trapp’s somewhat dark, brooding nature well but remains one dimensional, and his sudden conversion isn’t very convincing. He doesn’t sing badly, but his “Edelweiss” should bring tears to your eyes, and mine remained dry.

Most of the acting in the supporting roles is fairly broad except for a few savvy details. Edward Hibbert is aptly cast as the opportunistic and droll Max Derweiler, as is Futral as Elsa, but I had the feeling both of them had studied their counterparts in the movie carefully for tips. On the other hand, the inclusion of their duet, “How Can Love Survive?”, provides welcome socio-political commentary, complementing Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse’s book, which doesn’t shy away from then-controversial topics.

Alejo Vietti’s costumes are apropos and occasionally amusing, and the other technical elements are up to snuff—with one notable exception. Perhaps because the Lyric isn’t accustomed to using amplification, the sound system at the press opening was echo-y and out of balance, so that even the nuns sounded less gorgeous than they should have. Hopefully, this can easily be fixed.

Otherwise, “The Sound of Music” at the Lyric was a little disappointing but still worth seeing.