Monday, December 21, 2009

Ave Maria - The Sound of Music - Musical Review

The Sound Of Music - The Princess of Wales Theatre - Toronto, ON - ****1/2 (out of 5 stars)
*** on Wednesday Evenings and Saturday Matinees with alternate Maria
Music by Richard Rodgers, Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, Book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, Directed by Jeremy Sams, Choreographed by Arlene Phillips
Runs until Jan. 3 2010

The movie The Sound of Music, while not a Christmas related movie, has always has been MY Christmas movie, probably thanks to CTV's yearly Christmas airing. So here's a belated theatre review for the theatrical version on this Christmas week.

A year after opening, and already having found itself on my Best of Stage list for 2008, I'm finally posting this after finally having seen both Maria's in this revival originally produced by Andrew Lloyd Webber in London, and having used a TV reality show (How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria?) to cast it's leads (both in London and in Toronto).

So while Elicia MacKenzie (above) won the TV casting contest that had Canadian viewers choose their Maria, runner-up Janna Polzin, the theatre folks favorite, didn't go empty handed, and was given the lead role for 2 shows a week (Wed. evenings and Sat. matinees).

As much as I love Janna, I think Canada chose right. In fact, after being astounded by the production the first time around, then disappointed when I saw the alternate Maria, I went back again just to see if I had overpraised the production, but with Elicia in the lead as Maria, the classic musical The Sound of Music truly sings! (Eliza has since been cast as the lead female role of Sherrie in the upcoming Canadian premiere of Rock of Ages)

In my mini review for the Best of Stage list, I wrote: It was the first time I've ever seen The Sound of Music live on stage and it has the benefit and detriment of trying to live up to my favorite movie of all time. Luckily, the new grand production currently playing in Toronto (and copied from the version that played in London) knew exactly how to play the extremely cheesy and hokey musical, milking all the sentimental moments to perfection. Elicia McKenzie, the lead who was cast through a reality TV show, proves that reality TV can actually get it right sometimes and is simply darling as Maria and manages not only to stay afloat but take charge of the stage (and the 7 adorable Von Trapp children) in a large and luscious revival that finally gets these things right. Director Jeremy Sams (who also directed 13, see below) manages to keep a steady balance between the sentimentality, the grand scale of the show, the darker tones (with a fabulous transformation of the entire theatre into the Nazi stadium that is incredibly eerie) and all those famous songs we already have ingrained in our heads, and still manages to keep it fresh and fun. While Burke Moses is the surprising weak link (I loved him in the original cast of Beauty and the Beast on Broadway), the rest of the gigantic cast is great.

And I felt the same way watching it the third time again with Elicia in the lead, but I felt much of the magic disappear with Janna. It isn't to say Janna is a bad performer, as she's delightful and her voice is grand, but she plays Maria much more as a teacher and much more stoic than the girlishness that Elicia exudes, a role that is actually meant to be more girly (as Maria was only barely an adult when it happened). Janna tries to hone too much to Julie Andrews in the famous film version and while her more mature nature forms a better chemistry with her counterpart, Captain Von Trapp, played by Burke Moses, she loses out on the magic of the rest of the show.

(Incidentally, due to other commitments, Burke Moses won't be closing the last month of the run and has been replaced)

As for the rest of the cast, Blythe Wilson softens Baroness Schraeder and makes her much more sympathetic, and her voice, singing two songs that were discarded from the film (and thus seemed to confuse the audience everytime because the stage production isn't EXACTLY like the movie (me: rolling eyes at the audience)) is simply beautiful.

Noëlla Huet has a soaringly beautiful voice as The Mother Abbess and gives a wonderfully motherly and nunnish warmth.

Megan Nuttall is terrific as Liesl, the eldest of the von Trapp kids (and the one who is 16 going on 17), and while being taller than Elisha, still manages to give a youthful spirit to the role.

Jeff Irving's Rolf, Liesl's paramour, is all spunky and handsome, though while Rolf ends up working for the Nazi's his role here is softened from the movie version we are used to.

The main thing some audiences have been disappointed with is that this theatrical version returns to its original theatrical version as opposed to the film version which shifted things around for a better flow on film. So thus, Maria does not sing "My Favorite Things" to the children, but is sung by Mother Abbess to Maria. Instead, Maria sings "The Lonely Goatherd" during the thunderstorm, while Baroness Schraeder also have some lovely songs herself, and "Edelweiss" is only sung once at the end.

But seeing it staged with grande sets and a giant moving "mountain" platform is pretty breathtaking. The eerie scene where the Princess of Wales Theatre becomes the Nazi Concert Hall where the von Trapp's perform their final performance is simply chilling. It's been a long time since I've seen a musical with this kind of grandeur and it was quite welcome with such a nostalgic musical.

There are usually 2 rotating set of actors playing the other 6 von Trapp children (though I'm not sure if new cast members have rotated in) but I found one set stronger and more natural than the other, and thus funnier and less showbizy.

It's a wonderful family show that returns this iconic story to its theatrical roots (but warning to parents, it does run 2 hr 45 min so is not for the young and restless children). Sadly it ends its run soon though has now become the longest running musical revival in Canadian Theatre history.

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