Zach Theater’s dizzying version of “The Sound of Music” retains everything you love about the Broadway classic, then adds just enough theatrical flair to make you cherish it even more.
Without altering the essential qualities of the 1959 stage version of the musical, which starred Mary Martin, director Dave Steakley and his team, in a way that is both subtle and bold, usher in the beloved spectacle of Rodgers and Hammerstein on the Von Trapp Austrian Singing Family in the 21st Century.
It should first be noted that the hit 1965 film starring Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer differs in essential ways from the musical, which is much more intimate and includes songs deleted from the film. Fortunately, Steakley and his longtime musical director, Allen Robertson, came close to the words, music, style and structure of the 1959 rendition.
The first thing you notice, however, is that the stage at the Topfer Theater is radically different from its usual set-up. A platform extends well into the house. On this stage and elsewhere, the spectators occupy about twenty tables with chairs arranged like a brasserie.
They become part of the action. And performers use these tables as part of their amplified stage.
“We went to Bavarian breweries,” says Steakley. “We saw that it was a shared experience. It’s easy to meet people in those settings. We wanted to transfer some of that. It’s our post-pandemic return to ‘gaming’.”
At one point, Steakley had considered doing a full sing-along version, but the group that controls the rights to Rodgers and Hammerstein’s broadcasts canceled it.
“Yet there is in our culture, in our DNA,” says Steakley, “a desire to sing with us.”
That’s not all. The show’s band, which includes actors who play the part of instrumentalists, plays almost as soon as you enter. Mostly beer hall music, including “Beer Barrel Polka”, which gets the audience singing and dancing. At critical but unobtrusive intervals, the audience does this during the show itself.
The interaction with the audience was a A hallmark of the Zach Theater for decadesbut that effort goes even further in this generally affable device.
Along the same lines, the actors/musicians wear clothes not from 1930s Austria but from today, modified for character and action, with some Austrian touches. This becomes important during the dramatic climax towards the end of the second act. More on that later.
All that cool setting, however, fades as soon as Amanda Rivera, as novice Maria, sings “The Sound of Music” while seated with a guitar on the branch of a tall statuesque tree. (“Into the Woods,” the company’s first large-scale theatrical foray during the pandemicwas staged outdoors last year under an equally heavy tree in the theater square.)
“There’s this expectation of a twisting moment in the Alps,” Steakley says of opening up because of the film. “But Maria in a tree. Quiet. I wanted to see that production. I wanted to do that one.”
How do you characterize Rivera, who plays the budding nun who takes on the job of governess for seven children, then falls in love with their widowed father? Her voice is extraordinarily expressive and, at the same time, exquisitely beautiful. As Maria, she exudes a kind of grounded humanity – a kindness, an openness, a sense of being alive in every moment – that is impossible to fake.
I could basically watch her perform on any show.
As Captain von Trapp, Trevor Martin brings together a resonant voice and a presence that we see evolve as the show’s themes develop. Quite frankly, when Martin bursts into the title track, after we’ve already heard Rivera sing it alone, and then the kids delicately sing it in harmony for their dad, I started sobbing.
In some ways, the show could have stopped here and there. Not done. Emotions fully engaged.
The kids are great. Of course, I only saw about half of them, because they are double cast and appear alternately.
Terrific in smaller roles are Lex Land as the inspirational Mother Abbess; Jill Blackwood as the wise Baroness Elsa Schraeder, the Captain’s putative love interest; and Kenny Williams as a musical impresario who discovers the Von Trapp singers and then helps them escape, while exhibiting a dangerous habit of collaborating with undercover Germans.
This extraordinary project took years to prepare. The pandemic has postponed it more than once. But what a smart move to produce such a timely show and perform it so intelligently, without losing all the strength of the familiar score.
Back to 21st century dress: it becomes crucial because the characters who turn out to be Nazis look so tritely normal, a warning for our times.
Steakley saves one last contemporary glimpse – handled more easily than a pandemic-inspired pick during ‘Into the Woods’ – when the Nazis chasing fleeing Von Trapps inside the convent seek a critical moment – but not overdone — like the deadly white supremacist rally rally that convened in 2017 in Charlottesville.
I was impressed by the power of this musical, which never won the critical respect of Rodgers and Hammerstein hits of the late 1940s and early 1950s. always seemed to waver on saccharin.
Here, the love stories are very real. The people are very real. The songs seem to come from a real place.
I mentioned before that I involuntarily cried when Martin as Captain burst into the title track, but the truth is, I cried every time it was sung.
Why? Steakley: “Music is synonymous with love.”
Michael Barnes writes about the people, places, culture, and history of Austin and Texas. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you go to ‘The Sound of Music’
When: Until July 24
Where: The Topfer at the Zach Theater, 202 S. Lamar Blvd.
Recommended: For ages 8 and up due to adult and political themes