There was a touch of deja vu in seeing City Rep's production of this venerable Rodgers & Hammerstein classic the other night in the old Utah Theatre. Some 25 years ago, the block-buster film with Julie Andrews played there for nearly two record-breaking years.
While this live performance comes nowhere near the perfection achieved on the screen, City Rep's version does have some nice touches. Unfortunately, there are almost as many awkward "amateur night" touches as well.Let's consider the high points, first:
- Tamara Howell, a relative newcomer to local stages, is excellent as Maria, the impetuous postulant who learns that there are other ways to serve the Lord than being sequestered safely behind the thick walls of an Austrian abbey. Howell has a lovely voice and strong acting talent.
- James Dale, as the stern Captain Georg von Trapp, is also well-cast as the widowed father who runs his household with military precision. He stumbled over a couple of lines, but his singing voice is fine and his demeanor changes from brusque taskmaster to loving father and husband as the story progresses.
- Joan Mabe, an operatically trained vocalist, who was quite fine as the Mother Abbess (although some of the Court Stage's notorious dead spots give even her dynamic voice some problems now and then).
- Sharon Lynn Kenison and Ron Jewett were also close to the mark as Baroness Elsa Schraeder and opportunist Max Detweiler. It was nice to see Kenison in a more serious role than the comedy she's been doing so well in Desert Star Playhouse's melodramas (although, in my book, nobody says "I should have brought my harmonica" with more feeling than Eleanor Parker in the movie). Jewett, who's also been busy on a number of Salt Lake stages, added his own brand of whimsy to the show.
Despite some of the awkwardness in having props moved on and off the stage by a variety of performers (the former movie showhouse is sort of like a cross between a proscenium and an in-the-round theater in this respect), director Shellie Waters did manage to keep a tight reign on things and the show moved right along - getting out just a minute or two past 10 p.m. even when curtain was delayed by what seemed like a constant stream of late-comers.
Some of the blocking was also a little awkward - but, again, this just seems to be the nature of the Court Stage beast. The stage's size is more than ample for a full-scale musical like this, but the lack of a fly system or any wing space is decidedly detrimental.
Waters, however, did make good use of the auditorium itself, especially during the opening scene, with the chorus of nuns singing and walking down the two center aisles and onto the stage. And the climactic scene where the Nazi soldiers are searching for the von Trapps after they've disappeared from the Salzburg Festival also gets an extra sense of tension and excitement from the troops darting up and down the aisles with their flashlights piercing through the darkness.
But while half of the cast looks, sounds and acts at least semi-professional, the rest of the performers just don't come up much past "community theater" level. It's this inconsistency that continues to plague City Rep's mainstage productions. Upstairs, on the Jester Stage, the company's family/children's theater productions have a much better track record when it comes to overall quality.
Take Liesl and Rolf's "Sixteen Going on Seventeen" number. Byron Simper (Rolf) is a talented young dancer/singer with professional experience in Florida. He looked and acted like a young man smitten with his first love, but Emily Timms (Liesl) gave what should really be a sweetly innocent ingenue role more of a whimsical slant. Her Liesl seemed more like "Twenty-four Going on Twenth-five."
Simper injected the role of Rolf, the anxious young Third Reich soldier, with realism and depth, especially in the more dramatic moments toward the end.
The chorus of Nonnberg Abbey nuns also came off, for the most part, as more amateurish than professional. Two or three were really excellent, but the rest, at least in their very brief solos, didn't fare as well.
Jennifer O'Haley's musical direction, with a small combination of bass, percussion and electronic keyboards, was fine. But while the music itself was not intrusive, the staging was a little awkward. The lack of any real orchestra pit in the Utah Theatre, I admit, does cause a peculiar problem - but having the combo behind a tier at the back of the stage also creates a rather humorous look - like a shelf of dimly lit, disembodied heads, behind the other actors.
Overall, "The Sound of Music" will always be a sure-fire show for Utah audiences, and the crowd on Saturday night obviously enjoyed it, even if the mural of the Austrian Alps had wrinkles in it, and despite the chill in the auditorium. (A couple of folks sitting within earshot hoped that, perhaps, some of the warmth from the candles in the abbey might drift over to where we were sitting, but, alas, it was pretty nippy all night long.)