Tuesday, May 22, 2007

review of *The Sound of Music*

at Spokane Civic Theatre through June 17

"Sugar without the diabetes": one critic's summation of *The Sound of Music* hits at the musical's core without being entirely fair. With smiley-faced cherubs strutting their way through "Do-Re-Mi" and the mushy list-making of "My Favorite Things," it often seems that Oscar Hammerstein can't bring himself to serve up Austrian sugar cubes until after he's slathered them with syrup and honey. The disease in this show, however, isn't diabetic but fascist. The Nazis, furthermore, are helped along by the smiley-faced go-along-to-get-along indifference of those who see some evil but won't bother themselves to resist it.
Director Yvonne A.K. Johnson's version at Spokane Civic Theatre (through June 17) is at its best in the second act, when the question changes from "Will Maria choose to be married or cloistered?" to "Will the von Trapp family give up everything so they can live to fight evil another day?" (There's something about a lot of onstage swastikas that helps undermine the charge that *The Sound of Music* is nothing but sticky-sweet sentimentalism.)
Johnson’s direction avoids most of the sentimental pitfalls, setting up a more meaningful second half in a musical production that strews numerous highlights along the way: The simple beauty of the nuns' a cappella singing, for openers. The crystal-clear quality of Tami Knoell’s voice in the role of Maria. The increasing energy of Troy Nickerson’s choreography toward the end of “Do-Re-Mi.” The pillow-tossing fun for the finish of “My Favorite Things.” Jessi Little’s mixing in some sly aggressiveness while being courted as Liesl, showing us more than the usual sensitive young blossom. Kent Kimball's aloofness as Captain von Trapp; the way his emotional reserve breaks down when he’s moved to join first Maria and then his children in song. The way Kimball’s voice catches at the nostalgic peak of “Edelweiss.” Johnson’s direction in triangulating Kimball, Knoell and Hannah Christine (as the Captain’s fiancĂ©e) for a moment, suggesting the love triangle’s tensions without overdoing it. Johnson’s inventive staging of “The Lonely Goatherd,” which demands manual dexterity on top of rapid-fire singing from the performers while punctuating the scene better visually.

Naturally there are deficiencies. A slow, flat opening to Act Two drains suspense from the question about Maria's leave-taking. Stagy gestures — the worst have the nuns cupping, then raising their hands while trying to catch moonbeams — detract from some scenes. Too often, characters chime in their emotional notes without having prepared for them very persuasively. The Captain is grief-stricken and dogmatic, and then — 20 seconds later, because the plot calls for it — he's not. This is color-by-numbers emotionalism, allowing the feelings within the songs to drive the characters instead of the other way around.
Knoell is guilty of some of the same point-to-point acting during the opening title song, when she does the Julie Andrews helicopter arms and then starts skipping across the stage less because she’s feeling it than because the lyrics call for it. But Knoell has great rapport with the kids and her acting takes on dignity during the final escape sequence. She combines girlish qualities (in the convent scenes) with a mature and powerful voice (in the first-act set pieces and in the reprise of “Sixteen Going On Seventeen” with Liesl).
The four-piece ensemble with two music directors (Gary Laing and Carolyn Jess) creates plenty of room to let Richard Rodgers' melodies soar. With red paper lanterns and some scrim effects, Peter Hardie transforms an already ornate Austrian villa into an even more elegant garden party. The sound, by Charles Mix, achieves some remarkable echo effects during the nuns' singing, placing us inside a reverberating cathedral.
Perhaps “So Long, Farewell” is the number that best exemplifies the transition from sentiment to seriousness in *The Sound of Music.* At the end of Act One, it’s just a cutesy little-kid routine best suited to *Ted Mack’s Amateur Hour.* But by the finale, when it becomes a clever let’s-outsmart-the-Nazis ruse, “So Long, Farewell” provides a meaningful goodbye to the Civic’s affecting production of a musical classic.

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