The Mendelssohn comes alive with the sound of great music
I read that “serendipity” means “fortuitous happenstance.” The happenstance in question is Arbor Opera Theater’s production of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic, “The Sound of Music.” The production is housed in a unique venue – the Lydia Mendelssohn Theater on the central campus of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. It features a full orchestra and some glorious voices. Finally, the musical itself is one of the most popular in the repertory. That’s serendipity, indeed!
Few patrons of the arts would not know the plot of “The Sound of Music,” but a brief brush-up won’t hurt. The musical is “suggested” by “The Trapp Family Singers,” Maria Augusta Trapp’s account of true-to-life experiences. As the musical would have it, Maria Rainer (Beth Lackey) is too high-spirited for the sedate convent where she is a postulant. She’s sent to the home of Captain Georg von Trapp (Marc Meyers) to be governess to his seven children. The Captain is a widower; the loss of his wife changed him. He is trying to raise his brood with military discipline. Maria stubbornly refuses to accept the drill, and works to set both children and father free. Since this is a musical, the key to freedom is music. Love and marriage soon follow.
However, this is Salzburg, Austria, 1938. Austria has been annexed by the Third Reich, and Captain von Trapp has a commission in its navy forced upon him. Music is once again the key to freedom, and through a ruse, the family escapes into Switzerland to begin a new life.
In keeping with the style popular on Broadway in 1959, “The Sound of Music” is a big, big musical. What is striking is that it resembles operetta more than its contemporaries. Arbor Opera Theater’s production emphasizes that similarity.
Lydia Mendelssohn is a magic space. Built in 1929, it is a proscenium theater, with wide wings that can hold rolling set pieces and space above the stage from which scenery can be lowered. Scenic designer Leo Babcock uses both wagons and drops to revive the look of a classic Broadway musical. I’m familiar with Mendelssohn. I sang, danced and acted there in my callow youth, and scurried up and down ladders with huge theatrical lights cradled under an arm (I am wiser now). So I’m aware that the theater’s architecture makes for marvelous acoustics. Couple that with its modest seating capacity, and an audience will find it can hear every line, every note without artificial amplification. That makes the experience something wonderful in and of itself.
Also rare and wonderful is hearing Richard Rodgers’ brilliant score performed by a full orchestra, here under the direction of Warren Puffer Jones. He draws out a rich, warm tone from his ensemble and the orchestra never drowns out the voices.
And what voices!
Lackey and Meyers are beautifully matched to their roles and are particularly winning in the reprises of the musical’s title number. The popular canon is full of pieces from the “The Sound of Music,” including “Do-Re-Mi,” “Edelweiss,” “My Favorite Things” and the inspiring “Climb Ev’ry Mountain,” securely entrusted to Lynda Burg’s soaring soprano range. But some of the stand-out numbers in this production are lesser known.
Featured is a full women’s chorus as the convent’s nuns, and their harmonies are positively ethereal. The Trapp children, in order of the characters’ ages, were played opening night by Jocelyn Ascherl, Josh Krivan, Alexis Pratt, Henry Kiley, Sarah Cattell, Lacey Cooper and Olivia Goosman (the roles of the six younger children are double cast). Jocelyn Ascherl is not 16, but you wouldn’t know it from her winsome portrayal. Only the firm control of her lovely yet powerful voice gives her away. When the seven sing in close harmony, it’s thrilling.
Actually, “serendipity” has less to do with the success of “The Sound of Music” than the guiding hand of stage director Shawn McDonald, who has drawn all the pieces together. The result is old-fashioned musical theater staged the old-fashioned way.
Truly, everything old is new again.