The Hills are Alive in Matunuck: Theatre by the Sea stages The Sound of Music through July 14
Theatre by the Sea’s artistic director, Aimee Turner, calls this season a “crowd pleaser,” with four not-to-be-missed classic musicals. And what could be more classic or crowd-pleasing than “The Sound of Music?” The 1959 musical based on Maria von Trapp’s memoirs of fleeing Nazis in Austria was made into the much-loved 1965 film and is the subject of countless theatrical revivals. And the family-friendly production playing in Matunuck right now does not disappoint. It’s an intimate and joyful night or day out that convincingly conjures a young woman falling in love with a group of sweet-voiced children while the menace of the Third Reich looms.
It’s actually the second play in the theater’s 2012 summer season: “Forever Plaid” kicked things off, “9 to 5: The Musical” comes next, and “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” will round out the season.
But it was “The Sound of Music” that had me excited, and I was a little nervous for the performers and producers as I took my seat for a Tuesday evening showing last week. A beloved show like this comes with high expectations. It’s hard to think of an American musical known more widely across generations than Rodgers and Hammerstein’s last and best known work. I grew up in Matunuck, and as I watched familiar faces settle into the narrow aisles of the ocean-air filled theatre, a rough wooden barn of a theater set among gorgeously landscaped grounds, I was feeling like a bit of a difficult customer. I loved the film as a child and had recently returned from a semester in Munich, during which I indulged in “The Sound of Music” tour through Salzburg. Yes, all four hours of it.
Fred Willard, musical director, makes the classic soundtrack come to life, and this is definitely one for the entire family — the sweet voices of the seven actors portraying the von Trapp children are reason enough to make the 13-mile trek across the Atlantic before July 14. While other voices stood out, namely Dan Debenport’s (Captain von Trapp) and Patrice Tiedemann’s (Mother Abbess), the children were captivating. There are two casts for the kids, Cast B having performed on Tuesday. From their introduction on stage in Maria’s well known arrival scene, complete with marching to the beat of Captain von Trapp’s whistle, to their endearing performance of “So Long, Farewell,” the group rapport is evident.
Julie Andrews made the film role of Maria, a young nun transformed and transforming in her governess experience, iconic, and her performance is near impossible to rival. However, Brianne Moore, making her Theatre by the Sea debut in this show, gave a fair shake at the role. Her stage presence and vocal skills are undeniable, but while she is convincingly wholesome and chipper, she strained to appear troubled when appropriate. Her dynamics with the children were superb, coming off as a loving and inspiring caretaker who joyfully reintroduces music into the household, but she is less synchronized with the Captain.
The literal proximity of the staging in this small space makes the threat of the looming Nazi invasion particularly immediate. Perhaps I’m more sensitive to the delicacy of the National Socialist movement and the 1938 Anschluss as a German major, but I left being truly impressed by Theatre by the Sea’s handling of this difficult subject matter. The set changes frequently between the abbey, the interior of the church, the von Trapp’s veranda overlooking the Alps, and the interior of their estate, complete with double staircases, an effective and well-functioning backdrop on such a small stage. The growing presence of the Third Reich in Austria is conveyed by strong visual symbols, ultimately reaching a peak during the festival scene, when two large Nazi flags served as the stark backdrop.
The intimacy of Theatre by the Sea makes it hard to get a bad seat, although on a hot summer night I suggest trying to sit in one of the aisles adjacent to the side door, where there’s more ventilation. Visit www.theatrebythesea.com or call 782-8587 for tickets; with plenty of matinee offerings, this play could be fun night off island or even a day trip for island residents.