It’s thrilling to sit in a theater and watch something new unravel before you, something fresh, that its creators have no certainty of yet but are thrilled to share to new eyes and ears.
And it’s also fulfilling to sit in a theater and watch a classic, performed so well that it validates your nostalgia for it. The warm hug from an old friend.
Director Randy Kramer had the distinction of leading both kinds of debuts this week, one night apart. His Wednesday night world premiere at MusicalFare of “Talk To Me Now,” a jukebox musical that contemplates the progress of feminism over the last 150-plus years, was followed by Thursday’s opening night at Artpark of “The Sound of Music,” the classic that offers a woman content with domesticity.
That these shows opened within 24 hours of each other is a feat for Kramer. There are challenges in mounting both productions: proving you can shepherd a new idea to fruition, and proving you can honor an old idea’s success.
He does an admirable job with both, and on Artpark’s idyllic summerstock stage, shows that it’s a harder task to carry out than one might think.
The Rodgers & Hammerstein musical has always worked, from my seat, because of its delicacy. It cradles the burdensome combination of harmonic purity and epic genocide – nuns and Nazis. But the Family Von Trapp is as modern as any, with its afternoon romances and recreational competitiveness. Sixteen-year-old Liesl sneaks out the bedroom window to steal kisses, and Kurt talks back like he’s running the ship. These kids are our kids.
Taking from that page, there are contemporary notes throughout this production, some of which work better than others. Tessa Mossey’s Liesl is ambitiously hormonal, as 16-year-olds are, toward Rolf, a suitor one year her senior. Their midnight frolics are as fresh as any, but when she gives governess Maria pushback about her whereabouts, the attitude comes out – it’s practically missing a snap to the face. Mossey’s ’tude comes and goes, but it feels out of place alongside her siblings’ more classical approach.
Friedrich (Joe Greenan) is wonderfully curious, and youngest Gretl (Faith Wahl) is as darling as ever. This is a wonderful assembly of talent, child or not. Their characters are fully relational to each other and give us all the cheer and warmth we return to them for.
Their parental units are less harmonious together. Emilie Renier, as Maria, plays a very different governess and postulant than to what we’ve become accustomed. Both Julie Andrews, at age 30, and Mary Martin, at age 46, played the iconic role at ages older than Maria would have been. Renier, an Elon University musical theater student, owns the reality of Maria’s youthful exuberance much more convincingly, but she forgets some key pillars of maturity.
Her relationship with Paul Todaro’s Captain Von Trapp isn’t fun to watch. There’s no competition between these two leaders. Where she can whip up a miracle choir with a guitar and catchy mnemonic device, she can’t wrangle or tease her boss/suitor/eventual husband into anything more than a smile. She may be young and naïve to romance – she did leave a convent for this gig, after all – but surely she should be able to hold her own. It’s her precocious, adventurous confidence that gave Mother Abess (Maggie Zindle) the red flag. It’s time to fly the flag.
Todaro doesn’t help. His Lothario reading of the firm Navy man weakens him, not exactly with regards to masculinity but with regards to his role: The captain is a hard-shelled man begging to be cracked open. Maria emboldens his own children to gift that through song, at which point he should melt. Todaro’s Baldwinesque aloofness, his rhetorical self-awareness, makes him no more clueless about his children than a dad glued to the TV on the couch. Both Renier and Todaro could use a talking-to from Mother Abess: duty through conviction.
Their takes on these roles can be satisfying in subtle ways, though. Maria’s a fish out of water, as well; she needs to discover herself the same way she empowers her children to. But she should know more answers than they do, and not seem overrun by these precocious kids.
Inconsistencies distract elsewhere, too. Austrian accents needn’t be mimicked on an American stage, but consistency would help. Some adults sound British, while others sound vaguely European. One S.S. guard is decidedly, thickly German, while another is casually, passably Cheektowagan. These are the details that make recapturing a classic in a bottle worth the effort.
Overall, these are mere variables in a well-conceived, exquisitely sung and – with huge kudos to Jason Bravo’s big, beautiful, actually, technically, real orchestra – lushly arranged musical, brought back to life once again.