SUGAR RUSH

It doesn't matter how sappy the music is, the kids are what sells Rodgers and Hammerstein's classic The Sound of Music. The Country Dinner Playhouse's revival features seven terrific kids, and every time they're on stage, the whole production lifts a notch. Blatantly sentimental, the show has a few minor disappointments but retains its status as ripe family fare.

Young Maria, a postulate at an Austrian abbey, is somehow not prepared for the contemplative life of a nun. She's just too fidgety, not to mention tuneful. So Mother Superior sends her back into the world as a governess for seven children, the motherless offspring of the local baron, who is also a retired captain in the Austrian navy.

The children's favorite sport is antagonizing governesses, since every time one quits, their somber father has to return to the family estate for a few days to hire another one. Maria wins them over with a sunny rendition of "Do-Re-Mi." But dad is a tough nut to crack. Under the cold military discipline beats a sorrowing heart--the kids remind him of his dead wife. So Maria has to win the captain over to his own children.

Once dad and the children are reconciled, dad falls for the wannabe nun. Only Frau Schraeder, the captain's fiancee, stands in the way--well, her and Maria's lingering religious conscience. Mother Superior soon puts the latter to rest, and Frau Schraeder is found to be sympathetic to Nazi politics and quickly dispatched back to Vienna. Maria and the captain marry, everybody dances and the Nazis take over Austria. The captain is given a commission in the Nazi navy and ordered to appear at once. If he refuses, the whole clan winds up in a concentration camp. What's a guy to do? Sing his way out of it, naturally, then walk over a mountain and into Switzerland.

It's a better plot than one usually gets in a musical, and Country Dinner's production values are very high: good sets, charming choreography and lively staging. In fact, the best thing about the show besides the children themselves is the remarkably disciplined movement on stage, which has been thoroughly rehearsed and is a pleasure to watch.

Innocence is hard to play, and Rachel deBenedet does remarkably well as the innocent Maria, even though she's really too mature for the role. She has a fine voice that blends well with the others and a magical way with the child actors who surround her. Dan Sharkey as Captain Georg Von Trapp has a nice enough voice and an accomplished, courtly manner, and he does the stiff military thing very well. But he makes no chemistry at all with deBenedet--it's disconcerting to watch them kiss and impossible to imagine them in love.

Renee Skrevanos-Root is utterly unbelievable as Mother Superior--she simply has no authority on stage, though her pleasant voice does blend beautifully with deBenedet's when they sing the candied "My Favorite Things." Marcus Waterman is splendid as the ever-opportunistic impresario, Max, and Susan Long makes for a creditable Frau Schraeder--very feminine and very predatory.

But it's the children who make the experience. Five-year-old Aaryn Smith is a scene-stealing elf. The actors pick her up and carry her around like a doll, and she relaxes into the role like an old pro. Shayna Mordue as the observant, direct little Brigitta has a riveting stage presence. Ronni Stark as the eldest, Liesl, projects undeniable sweetness, and all the children have fine voices, excellent concentration and grace. Bet on it: The crowd will go wild when they take their bows.

Of course, it's still a bit embarrassing to hear a woman tell her husband "Whatever you decide will be my decision" when it comes to making a choice as horrific as whether or not to serve the Nazi war machine. What if he'd made the wrong choice? Ah, well, retro social attitudes notwithstanding, the show does everything a family musical is supposed to do. You know what you're getting, so you know you'll like it if you choose to go.

 
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