MILL HALL - The universally beloved musical "The Sound of Music" was Millbrook Playhouse's opening attraction ten years ago. Rodgers and Hammerstein's famed production returns to the old barn playhouse as the second Main Stage show in Millbrook's 50th anniversary season, with 7:30 p.m. performances tonight through Sunday.
Like the Academy Award-winning movie, the stage version of "The Sound of Music" was based upon Maria Augusta Trapp's memoirs of The Trapp Family Singers. Although there is repositioning of some of the songs and a different focus between the film and stage versions, both tell an appealing tale.
Set in Austria in 1937, young postulant Maria Rainer struggles to balance her new life in the convent with her love of music. Her Mother Superior directs Maria to leave the Nonnberg Abbey to become the governess for the seven children of the stern Naval Captain von Trapp. Spirited Maria quickly brings music back into the household, charming the children, and winning the heart of their father. But with Nazi occupation of Austria looming, the Captain and his family venture a dangerous escape across the mountains into Switzerland.
Although the narrative moves too fast, it is the wonderful musical score which calls for performers who can both sing and act that demands attention. Millbrook's production more than succeeds in meeting this challenge.
Heading the cast is Erika Strasburg as the guitar-strumming governess. Thoroughly engaging and compelling, Strasburg makes Maria's playful personality bubble forth with wide eyed expressions. It's a great performance, whether she's acting and singing with the Mother Superior ("My Favorite Things") or her seven charges ("Do-Re-Mi" and "The Lonely Goatherd")
Only a minor qualm with Maria - unless my eyes failed me - the postulant was wearing earrings during the early scenes of a recent performance.
Drew Pulver was initially (and correctly) stern as the whistle blowing martinet Captain but his performance lacked dash. His character softened and won over the audience once Maria brought music, long absent after his wife's death, back into the von Trapp home.
It is the Mother Superior (Andrea Gregori) who urges the confused Maria to follow her heart. With operatic credits, Gregori splendidly hits the high notes in the Act I finale, "Climb Every Mountain." Surrounding the Mother Superior is a large contingent of nuns singing with power and clarity.
And then there are the children. A mixture of community and professional actors portray the seven von Trapp children, delightful in their singing and dancing.
Special mention goes to the youngest and oldest of the children. Seven- year-old Anya Katz plays Gretl and with her smile (with little gaps between her teeth) always drawing the audience's attention.
The oldest von Trapp daughter is Liesel, effectively played by Central Mountain High School's Kalli Haines. Her duet, "Sixteen Going On Seventeen," with the telegraph messenger Rolf (Johnny Haussener) was followed by an audience-pleasing dance number.
Credit goes to the choreographer, Lexie Fennell Frare, for the peppy dance numbers for the children, and the pivotal dance between the Captain and Maria, when love prevails.
The only dance and song which seems misplaced is "No Way to Stop It," in which Max and Elsa tell the Captain there is little to do to hal the Nazi march on Austria. The song and staging is too upbeat and the number might easily be cut, reducing the show's long running time.
Millbrook veteran Richard Guido delivers funny quips as the family friend Max, a pragmatic showman whose loyalty to Austria waivers.
Courtney Simmons plays the Baroness Elsa ready to wed the widowed Captain. A difficult role but Simmons unfortunately does little to project either a villainess or a cultured intelligent woman.
Bill Brown is music director, with the off-stage instrumentalists playing Rodgers and Hammerstein's indelible lyrics. Ken Kaissarably very ably directs this ambitious production.
Costuming is age-appropriate and top-notch, with good-looking gowns, Nazi uniforms and even curtains, which, of course, are transformed into cute kiddie outfits.
The staging is low-key carried to the extreme. There is nothing to connote either the opulence of the van Trapp castle or the serenity of the convent. Everything is left to the audience's imagination - which may be asking too much - with only a desk in the Abbey and a table and chairs on the von Trapp veranda. But the platform and steps in which the von Trapp family move and dance keep the emphasis on the songs. But then, it is the songs that are the real stars of "The Sound of Music".
The cast and creative team of Millbrook's "The Sound of Music" received well-deserved, sustained applause for the show. Many theatergoers were humming a few of the tunes on their way out of the playhouse and probably will do so even for a day or two after the show. Now that's lasting power.
Box Office: 570-748-8083; or visit www.millbrookplayhouse,org.