Wonderful Voices Aren't Enough to Elevate Central City Opera's The Sound of Music

Though I generally love Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, The Sound of Music has never been one of my favorites. But continuing a tradition it started two years ago of bringing a more mainstream production down from the hills to Denver's larger audiences, that's the show Central City is presenting at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House, and I figured the sheer gloriousness of the CCO singing could overcome any weakness of the show...including its silly script.

Maria, a feisty young nun too joyously uninhibited for her monastic vocation, is assigned by her Mother Abbess to care for the seven young children of a stern widower, Captain von Trapp. These kids are supposed to be naughty little things who ran off their last governess with such pranks as toads in her bed, but they're instant putty in Maria's hands, and eventually she also wins the heart of their father. All would be well except for that darn German invasion, which forces the captain to assert his opposition to Nazism and the family to flee Austria.

Written in 1959, The Sound of Music was a huge success on Broadway and, later, as a movie that made stars of Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer. But even then, there were dissenting voices. Acerbic critic Pauline Kael called the film "The Sound of Money" and commented, "Wasn't there perhaps one little von Trapp...who screamed that he wouldn't act out little glockenspiel routines for Papa's party guests, or who got nervous and threw up if he had to get on a stage?" Plummer himself said he hated the role of Captain von Trapp and dubbed the musical "The Sound of Mucus."

Still, through the first act, my faith in Central City Opera's redemptive powers remained strong. Alone in the mountains, Katherine Manley as Maria sang "The Sound of Music," and her clear, pure soprano made the familiar song fresh and moving again, so that for the first time I really thought about the mystery and magic of those great alpine mountains, the way they represent both danger and freedom. Manley's first Do-Re-Mi with the children was delightful, too. Apprentice Julie Tabash plays sixteen-year-old Liesl with poise, and all six of the younger kids are sweetly disciplined and completely lacking in the self-conscious cuteness that afflicts so many child performers.

There are lovely Gregorian chants and other fine individual voices to enjoy. There's Maria Zifchak singing her heart out as the Mother Abbess on "Climb Ev'ry Mountain." Baritone Troy Cook is a little too stiffly inexpressive as Captain von Trapp, but his voice is smooth and powerful. Lucy Schaufer plays the captain's morally compromised fiancée, Elsa Schraeder, as a glittering sophisticate, and when she's matched in song with Robert Orth's opportunistic Max Detweiler, the two deliver with humor and style. Their first number is "How Can Love Survive?" about the problems facing very wealthy lovers: "No little cold water flat have we/Warmed by the glow of insolvency/Up to our necks in security/How can love survive?" Later comes a trio with a disgusted Captain von Trapp in which Elsa and Max insist that accommodation with the coming Anschluss is necessary because there's "No Way to Stop It." These are all vividly alive moments. Orth is a loose, compelling presence, and the fact that these songs are cut in most productions — including the movie — makes them interesting and new.

But the second act goes on too long, and most of the songs are reprises of numbers we heard in act one. A little over-familiar in the first place, those lilting rhythms and plinkety-plunk sounds don't repeat well, and the gathering war clouds underline the show's overall Hallmark Card quality. The program describes Maria as a peasant, and it would be fun if she were played as one, adding piquancy to her relationship with the very proper captain. But though Manley's performance is charming, her Maria has the exact cut-glass clarity of speech and singing that Julie Andrews brought to the role. And those Nazi soldiers standing with their rifles at the ready aren't remotely menacing with cheery melodies playing in the background.

I couldn't help thinking about how thrilling it would be to hear these wonderful voices put to the service of, say, South Pacific's "Younger Than Springtime" or Carousel's "If I Loved You" rather than the umpteenth repetition of "My Favorite Things."

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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman