Tell any regular attendee of the Stratford Festival that you’re seeing a Donna Feore production, and the reaction is usually a breathy sigh of envy. The woman has a remarkable talent for being able to make any play stupendously fun and exciting to watch, and “The Sound of Music”, which opened May 26 at the Festival Theatre, is no different. Comparisons to Mary Martin and Julie Andrews are inevitable and understandable, but the second Stephanie Rothenberg starts singing “The Sound of Music” by a tree in the mountains, with a voice that’s clean and clear and pure, she stakes a strong line in the sand as her own Maria.
The rest of the two and a half hours only crystallize Rothenberg’s Maria, a nunnery postulant who, through the magic of singing, transforms the von Trapp family during the time of Austria’s Anschluss, as a young woman who finds inner strength by tackling her doubts and insecurities. Going over the plot is a needless exercise because it’s so familiar, especially when the magic of this Stratford Festival production lies in its cast. From the littlest charmer in Gretl von Trapp (a hugely adorable Zoë Brown) to the quietly powerful Mother Abbess (Anita Krause, whose stunning voice in “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” induces serious chills), the actors in this play create an enticing combination of playfulness, depth and fun.
There aren’t enough superlatives to describe all the aspects in “The Sound of Music”, whether it’s Michael Gianfrancesco’s creative and quick-changing design taking us to the Austrian alps or Michael Walton (lighting design) and Peter McBoyle (sound design) acting as a seamlessly perfect complement to “The Sound of Music” orchestra. Their behind-the-scenes work sets the stage — no pun intended — for the actors to inhabit a play that Feore described in the playbill as one that aims to move deeply.
The singing is of incredible quality throughout “The Sound of Music”, starting with the nuns’ spine-tingling “Preludium” in the beginning, arcing up with children and “So Long, Farewell” and the Mother Abbess’s “Climb Ev’ry Mountain”, and finishing crisply with the von Trapp family (Liesl: Alexandra Herzog; Friedrich: Sean Dolan; Louisa: Effie Honeywell; Kurt: Alec Dahmer; Brigitta: Graci Leahy; Marta: Sarah DaSilva; Gretle: Brown)’s concert performance at the Kaltzberg Festival. Liesl’s telegram-delivering beau, Rolf (Gabriel Antonacci) is strong all through “Sixteen Going On Seventeen”, while Max (Shane Carty) and Elsa (Robin Evan Willis)’s voices blend together beautifully. Although they didn’t sing, the Schuhplattler Dancers (Matt Alfano, Matthew Armet, Chad McFadden, Jason Sermonia) hopped and kicked so entertainingly, they almost defied you not to grin while performing Feore’s energetic choreography.
At the heart of the play, though, are Maria and Captain von Trapp (Ben Carlson), whose evolving relationship showcases the best-situation-possible effects of two opposites together. Carlson, whose experience includes roles as Hamlet, Brutus and Octavius with the Stratford Festival, brings just the right touch to his character, a man whose protective outer shell desperately needs piercing in order to regain his old self. Maria, as in performances past, is just the woman to do it, and Rothenberg delivers innocence, firmness and persuasion in all the correct doses.
There’s nothing saccharine or clichéd about her performance — especially not with the incredible singing she sprinkles around like fairy dust — as she reaches inside herself to show how her own journey helps transform her relationship with the Captain. The chemistry between them is genuine, and when they pause after dancing the Ländler and nervously tilt closer by the gazebo, it almost feels like watching a real-life couple in the earliest stages of figuring out their attraction for each other. It helps that the veteran Carlson is able to reach deep inside and pull out a truly authentic sense of vulnerability, showing us the internal struggles he grapples with; when he tenderly sings “Edelweiss”, his pains and aims are never more clearly contained than in this one burst of emotion.
If Feore’s name at Stratford hasn’t yet become synonymous with excellence, “The Sound of Music” will cement that. It’s a play with marvellously rich singing, choreography that’s fun to watch and yet never too complex for the youngest performers to master, and a standout effort from everyone. And by the time the finale ultimo of “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” rolls around and the audience starts clapping in time to the music, you’ll have forgotten entirely that there was ever a musical and movie that came before.