by Matthew Falduto
Iowa City – The Sound of Music, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein’s final collaboration, opened on Broadway in 1959, winning many Tony awards, including Best Musical. It’s the story of would-be nun Maria, who leaves the convent to be a governess for a widower’s seven children. It takes place in Austria, against the backdrop of Nazi incursion into Austria before World War II. But then you probably already know that, since the movie is a classic as well, a movie that many of us have watched year after year, singing the songs together as a family. You know it’s a story of love, and of the power of music. You know it’s a moving, timeless tale of a family’s escape from the evil that is threatening their homeland. The touring company whose production is on Hancher’s stage does not disappoint in any way. Director Jack O’Brien’s version is fun and light when it needs to be and it also expertly delves into the more serious moments.
From the first moments of the show in Nonberg Abbey, we are treated to the amazing voices of the ensemble. A particular standout of the show was Melody Betts as The Mother Abbess, whose lovely voice lifted the spirits of the audience. In addition, the nuns played the humor very well, particularly during “Maria”, as they struggle with what to do with the sweet Maria, who doesn’t quite fit in at the abbey.
The movements are wonderfully choreographed as well. There isn’t a lot of dancing in this musical, but there are a number of moments where the movements are choreographed as if they were dance numbers. The nuns’ movement during their morning prayers was one excellent example of this. The choreography between scenes and in conjunction with the moving pieces of set kept the action moving and the audience involved.
Once we arrive in the von Trapp family’s house and are introduced to the children, the fun really begins. The production’s rendition of “Do Re Mi” is wonderful, and it was fun to watch the music of the song slowly thaw the ice of eldest child Liesl, who states firmly that she does not need a governess.
All of the child actors were quite good and their singing is flawless. Austin Levine’s Kurt is delightful and Anika Lore Hatch’s Gretl will melt your heart. But the standout was certainly Iris Davies as Brigitta. This young actress’s stage presence was captivating. Every line delivery was perfect and she remained present in every scene, actively engaged in whatever was happening. I particularly enjoyed her scene with Maria when she points out that her father is in love with the governess. Her matter of fact, precocious, know-it-all delivery was both humorous and true to life.
Ben Davis portrayal of Captain Von Trapp was excellent, as he expertly takes the audience through the Captain’s story. He effortlessly portrays the ice cold commander of his household in the beginning of the story, but then slowly melts as Maria’s joy and love permeate his home. I’ve seen The Sound of Music many, many times, so I didn’t expect to find a new moment, but I did. Early on, the Captain tells Maria she must leave because he does not approve of how she is caring for the children. Partway through the argument, he hears the children singing offstage. They slowly enter still singing and the Captain turns away, rock rigid, facing the audience. We watch his face as the children sing. We see his anguish and we know he’s remembering his beloved wife and how they used to sing together. Davis looks up as if to Heaven, and then slowly allows the music to sweep over him. We see him accepting the music and the love and finally the loss of his beloved wife. It’s a well crafted moment of acting by a truly talented artist.
Maria embodies the playfulness and the naivete of Maria perfectly. There’s an innocence to Maria that is charming, and Charlotte Maltby uses, at different times, awkward movements, a rapid fire speech pattern and her large expressive eyes to capture that innocence. There is also a certain relatable goodness to the character of Maria, and Maltby certainly delivers that sense of fallible sweetness. It doesn’t hurt that her voice is pitch perfect as well. She’s a wonderful scene partner for the child actors, who all raise their game to keep up with her.
Douglas W. Schmidt’s scenic design was beautiful and clever, with the transitions perfectly choreographed so we stayed in the moment as the scenery changed behind the actors. I particularly enjoyed the storm scene in Maria’s bedroom. The simple A-frame design perfectly conveyed an attic bedroom. Natasha Katz’s lighting design is superb. Many important moments were subtly enhanced by the tightening and brightening of the light on a character.
Near the end of the play, three huge Nazi flags fly in and overwhelm the stage. I admit I gasped when they appeared for it felt like evil itself had come to roost on Hancher’s stage. In front of those hateful symbols the Captain gently begins singing “Edelweiss”. And when he falters, his family sing for him and he gains the strength to continue. It was a moving moment of the human spirit resisting evil captured beautifully on stage. And I thought to myself, this is what we need right now. This is why I bring my girls to the theatre.
So I strongly encourage you to see The Sound of Music. Experience the story of how music saved a family and helped them re-discover love and happiness. Be inspired by the power a simple lovely song has over the forces of darkness. And enjoy the classic music that we all know and love. Truly, this production will be one of your favorite things.