Dexter is alive with 'Sound of Music

By Donald V. Calamia

For The Encore Musical Theatre's current production of "The Sound of Music," the question isn't so much "How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria" as it is "How do you pack an abbey full of singing nuns, armed Nazi soldiers in search of a missing Navy captain, a formal dinner party entertained by seven cute kids, a villa, a concert hall and a mountain onto a stage that's barely larger than my traditional 1950's ranch-style living room?

The answer, I discovered during the production's opening night performance, was quite clever and generally well executed - although not perfect. But it certainly proved that creative minds and skilled hands can certainly produce a large cast, big-budget Rodgers and Hammerstein musical in a tight space and with an even tighter budget!

And earn a standing ovation for their efforts as well!

The story, set in Austria in 1938, opens as a troublesome young postulant, Maria Rainer (Leslie Henstock), is sent by her Mother Abbess (Jody Doktor) to become temporary governess of the seven children of widower and naval hero Captain Georg von Trapp (Paul Kerr). Maria turns the strict household upside down - and in the process falls in love with the captain. The two marry, but upon their return from the honeymoon, the two learn some distressing news: The Nazis want - demand, actually - the immediate return of Captain von Trapp to active duty. Maria and Georg, anti-Nazi through and through, have other plans, however.

"The Sound of Music," Rodgers and Hammerstein's last collaboration, opened on Broadway in November 1959 and spawned the most popular movie musical ever filmed and countless community theater productions all over world. Why? Surely because of its hefty box office appeal. But also because of its flexible casting. If 200 women show up for auditions, why not cast 50 nuns? Or 60? (Think of all those relatives who will flock to the show and pay to see it!) And the more Nazis you have running around the stage, the scarier and more thrilling the ending becomes.

That's likely among the first of many dilemmas director and choreographer Barbara F. Cullen faced when she first tackled the production. With limited space, how many of each could she use without causing massive traffic jams on stage?

As we saw during the musical's opening number ("Preludium") at the Nonnberg Abbey and at other points throughout the show, her choice regarding the nuns was perfect. (There were plenty of nuns to make beautiful music together, but not enough to overwhelm the stage.)

The Nazis, though, were a far different matter. Little tension is delivered in the show's climactic final scene, as few Nazis show up at the Abbey to search for the missing von Trapps - so much so that the nuns could easily have beaten the crap out of the solders (with possibly some help from the littlest von Trapp kids) and likely ended WWII before it officially started. The scene needs more bodies, but particularly more loud and threatening voices (even pre-recorded ones) to make the scene much more powerful and believable.

Cullen's other casting choices, however - especially the principles and the kids - serve the show quite well.

Henstock, a University of Michigan graduate and current New York-based actress, makes a fine first appearance with The Encore as Maria. She has a sweet voice and looks young enough to be a young-nun-in-training. But more importantly, she has an excellent rapport with the seven von Trapp children, which makes her performance as their beloved governess quite believable.

Kerr, who was reviewed very favorable recently in Tibbit's "Run For Your Wife," turns in another fine performance as Capt. von Trapp. His rubbery face is especially well utilized at conveying the captain's many and differing emotions.

Somewhat problematic, though, was a specific moment between Henstock and Kerr. While a spark definitely jumped between them during the first act scene in which a dance number reveals their hidden feelings for one another, their second act first kiss lacked any passion whatsoever, and their touching one another seemed to make them both uncomfortable - which was NOT the emotion we would expect to see.

Encore regular Steve DeBruyne delivers yet another fine performance as Max Detweiller. So too do Madison Deadman and Sebastian Gerstner as young lovers Liesl and Rolf. So too do Madison Deadman and Sebastian Gerstner as young lovers Liesl and Rolf. (After the show, another critic commented that you can't help but smile every time DeBruyne enters the stage. And I agree!)

Strong support was provided by the remaining two-dozen (or so) performers. The children were especially polished - and Nick Beatty, always with an ear-to-ear smile on his face, was amazingly focused throughout his performance as Kurt. (Except for Liesl, there are two sets of children cast in these roles.)

Music director Jill Quagliata coaxed beautiful harmonies from her performers - especially from the nuns. But Doktor stunned the audience with her superb rendition of "Climb Ev'ry Mountain" that closed the first act. With a doctoral degree in vocal performance from the University of Michigan, Doktor's operatic voice has an amazing range - which was well showcased by this impressive performance.

Also noteworthy is the set by Toni Auletti. With a gorgeously painted mountain range in the background, what looks like a fairly utilitarian design is instead deceptively complex. Piece parts are taken down, pulled away, spun around, added to and otherwise re-imagined to take the audience on a journey from Mother Abbess' office to the von Trapp's living room and many places in between. (Some imagination on the part of the audience was required, though, to make up for some of the budgetary and spatial limitations.) And it all happens quickly, efficiently and quietly.

Lights and sound still need work, however. The thunder and lightning in the first act need to be better timed and far more realistic, for example. (The very slow flashing lights initially seemed like a mistake rather than lightning, for example.) And later, at the concert hall, the von Trapp kids were standing mostly in the dark downstage as they sang much of the reprise of "So Long, Farewell."

All told, "The Sound of Music" has always been one of "My Favorite Things" - and The Encore Musical Theatre's production was a satisfying visit with a longtime and beloved old friend.

REVIEW:

'The Sound of Music'

The Encore Musical Theatre, 3126 Broad St., Dexter. Thursday-Sunday through Aug. 29. $28. 734-268-6200. http://theencoretheatre.org

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