Most Marias are depicted as nurturers-in-waiting. All the reluctant postulant needs is a guitar, a set of old curtains and seven militarized munchkins and you've got Austria's stepmother of the year. But, in director Rachel Rockwell's magnificent new production of “The Sound of Music” at the Drury Lane Theatre, when the Mother Abbess — she who looks out a mountain and immediately wants others to climb it — first commands Maria chez von Trapp, the irrepressible young actress Jennifer Blood lets out the kind of snort of horror that was never in Julie Andrews' bag of tricks.
But it makes perfect sense: Maria might have struggled to choose between life in the dreamy Nonnberg Abbey and life swanning around her beloved mountains picking edelweiss, but few girls her age would crave an instant brood. Nor their messed-up, middle-aged father.
And by showing us a spontaneous Maria, a restless Maria, a Maria who's a kid herself, a Maria who must grow much more than Captain von Trapp (whose no-brainer trajectory — he is, after all, getting a beautiful young girl whom his kids adore — dominates too many productions of this musical), Rockwell and Blood thus set the tone for a fresh, spontaneous and thoroughly wonderful production of “The Sound of Music,” in which the hills could not be more alive. And in which it's very much women-and-children first.
You know a production of this particular show is working when a thousand people break out into relieved applause when Maria comes back to send Elsa packing. (I'm not sure I've ever seen that before and I thought I'd seen every “Sound of Music” permutation this side of the Alps). And you know the show is on track when it's the kids whose curtain-call appearance gets the biggest reaction. Rockwell is at her best with children — the “Do-Re-Mi” here is a bring-the-house-down revelation, and that's not a sentence I ever thought I'd write. And “Sixteen Going On Seventeen” (performed by the sultry Katie Huff and the deliciously buttoned-down Brandon Springman) has not a coy or cutesy bone in its body, instead offering a sensual nod to the dream ballet of “Carousel” or the “Somewhere” of “West Side Story.”
You would not call Rockwell's production a revisionist affair. Who wants a revisionist “Sound of Music”? What most people want is to know that they can take their family to one of the greatest musicals ever penned, feel every beautiful note of that stunning Richard Rodgers-and-Oscar Hammerstein score and, likely as not, re-create an experience from their own youth. Well, here's that warranty. Rockwell's “Sound of Music” delivers all the requisite pleasures: Patti Cohenour (who played Mother Abbess in the 1998 Broadway revival, which does not compare with this production) shakes this suburban joint to its boots with her searing “Climb Ev'ry Mountain.” McKinley Carter's Elsa is thoroughly appalling; Peter Kevoian's Max is a cautionary tale; Kevin Depinet's set delivers the hills and romance; and Theresa Ham's costumes pop with vibrancy and go far beyond the usual. And yet there's particular tension in the air in the famous final Nazi sequences, mostly because you find yourself uncommonly invested in the von Trapps' fate.
But it's Rockwell's subtler touches that make this show so remarkable, especially when the kids are on stage. You'll sense immediately that the von Trapp children are acting like real children, and the importance of that simple but oft-overlooked aspect of this show can't be overstated. Rockwell adds texture everywhere: the complicit servant with the champagne prop during “So Long, Farewell”; Depinet's long staircase down which Elsa slinks and Max slithers; the way the children are always overhearing and controlling things; the choice to show Maria's beloved nuns pushed to the rear during Maria's wedding, forced to pay visual deference to some unknown priest. Rockwell gets in her progressive licks, and the show is all the better.
None of this would work without a very generous and truthful performance from Larry Adams, who understands like few who play this role that Captain von Trapp has departed from competent parenting and is not a handsome patriarch so much as broken man in need of saving. It is a modest performance and it serves this production perfectly. The night mostly belong to Blood, for whom this should be a career-making performance, and the remarkable children. At Thursday's open night, those were Julia Baker, Zachary Keller, Emily Leahy, Laura Nelson, Ben Parkhill and, especially, Arielle Dayan as Brigitta, the young woman who really controls this particular family revolution.
When: Through Jan. 8
Where: Drury Lane Theatre,
100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace
Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes
Tickets: $35-$46 at 630-530-0111 or drurylaneaokbrook.comCopyright © 2015, RedEye