‘The Sound of Music’ at The Hippodrome Theatre at The France-Merrick Performing Arts Center

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The Sound of Music strikes a slightly different tone but its hills are still full of life in the new national touring show at Baltimore’s Hippodrome Theatre.

Season ticket-holders should brace themselves for a radical change of gears from last month’s Book of Mormon. Fans of musicals, though, are gracious folks who tend to cozy up to the good ones, no matter where they are coming from.

Actually, Music and Mormon have one thing in common. Both follow the adventures of singing emissaries from a devout religious order who must stand up to the dark forces they meet out in the real world.

The current offering has a few added lessons on what to do when the dog bites and the bee stings — not to mention its always-timely warning about “bachelor dandies and drinkers of brandies.”

Veteran Tony Award-winning stage director Jack O’Brien seems to be commemorating the 50th anniversary of Robert Wise’s 1965 megahit movie musical by largely ignoring it. His production returns to the pious verites of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein’s 1959 Broadway original, with its curtain-raising chorus of nuns harmonizing in Latin below a stained-glass window at Nonnberg Abbey.

Soon enough, though, the gothic walls fly apart and we are hovering over a country footbridge before the pastel peaks of the Alps. Here we meet the errant novitiate nun, Maria, who finds communing with nature more agreeable than life in the abbey.

Kerstin Anderson as Maria Rainer. Photo by Matthew Murphy.
Kerstin Anderson as Maria Rainer. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

As Maria, a talented newcomer named Kerstin Anderson assures us we are in professional hands with her sweetly pure and controlled rendition of the title song. Later on, the lovely soprano aces “Do-Re-Mi” and “The Lonely Goatherd” before digging in her emotional heels for the revamped movie duet, “Something Good.”

When not delivering the musical goods, though, Anderson tends to oversell her character’s self-effacing naturalism. Her dialogue comes with too much gangly arm-swinging and a jarringly casual bearing. She should be seen as at-odds with the strictures of 1938 Austrian culture, not totally outside of it.

Occasionally we are reminded of the refinements made by the film’s screenwriters. Maria gets no big solo on her journey to meet the Von Trapp clan here. Instead, her childish fears and naïve gumption are expressed with a few shared choruses of “My Favorite Things” with the Mother Abbess. Later Maria has no trouble at all winning the hearts and minds of the Von Trapp brood by pulling off a seemingly miraculous music lesson (“Do-Re-Mi”).

This production and all of its wonderful singers benefit enormously from the original orchestrations left by Robert Russell Bennett, who died in 1981. Music Director Andy Einhorn keeps the legacy fresh at the Hippodrome with a live pit orchestra that might have even pleased the notoriously finicky Richard Rodgers.

For this seasoned musical fan, it was also a treat hearing anew two of the numbers left out of the film version. Hammerstein’s wry lambast of musical conventions, “How Can Love Survive?,” and his mockery of any attempt to place Nazi aggression into a philosophic context, “No Way to Stop It,” both made the play something more than an ode to Von Trapp family values.

Probably the biggest and surest voice in the touring cast belongs to Ashley Brown as the Mother Abbess. Her chills-producing rendition of “Climb Every Mountain” at the end of Act One guaranteed that every seat would be filled again after intermission.

Ben Davis emerges as everything one can hope for in a Captain Von Trapp — steeled by tragedy and politics but always the romantic sojourner beneath it all. Davis’ forceful solo on “Edelweiss” in front of an array of Nazi banners provides the show with at least one truly sobering highlight.

Ben Davis (Captain von Trapp), Kerstin Anderson (Maria), and the von Trapp Children. Photo by Matthew Murray.
Ben Davis (Captain von Trapp), Kerstin Anderson (Maria), and the von Trapp Children. Photo by Matthew Murray.

Teri Hansen as Frau Schraeder and Merwin Foard as the comically self-centered Max Detweiler offer grand support and contrast to the central romance. The Von Trapp kids also prove as adorable a pool of youthful talents as anyone could desire.

One must be cautious about the corners cut by touring shows these days, but happily this is a case of good triumphing over evil. The fluid succession of colorful backdrops by Scenic Designer Douglas W. Schmidt and Lighting Designer Natasha Katz compliment the storytelling and the professionalism on view in every other quarter.

One rarely gets a chance to see a full-fledged professional revival of this show anywhere. So snap up your guitar case, let down your hair, and hurry over to the Hippodrome while those hills are alive.

Running Time: About two hours and 45 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission. 

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The Sound of Music plays through December 13, 2015 at Hippodrome Theatre at The France-Merrick Performing Arts Center – 12 North Eutaw Street, in Baltimore, MD. For tickets, call (800) 982-ARTS, or purchase them online

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John Harding
Born and raised in Los Angeles, John Harding is an award-winning writer and editor. His features and reviews on film and theater have been published in the Washington Post and numerous other newspapers and magazines. Since 1982 he has covered D.C. and Maryland theater for Patuxent Publishing, and was arts editor for the Baltimore Sun Media Group. He hosted a long-running cable-TV cultural affairs program and served numerous terms as chair of the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society. Also known for his fiction as John W. Harding, his newest novel is “The Ben-Hur Murders: Inside the 1925 'Hollywood Games.'” It grew out of his lifelong love of early Hollywood lore. It is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other outlets.

1 COMMENT

  1. Nice review, John. I do not know if I told you, but I saw the original first national tour of “Sound of Music” at the old Schubert Theatre in Chicago in January 1962. A young Florence Henderson starred as Maria on the tour. She was terrific and perfect in the role (she was around 27 and I was 17). A sweet very talented lady then and now. :-)

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