The hills are alive

Sound of Music opens the Muni’s summer season

click to enlarge Mary Harmon as Maria in an early scene. - PHOTO BY DONNA LOUNSBERRY
Mary Harmon as Maria in an early scene.
Mary Harmon as Maria in an early scene.

I guess I just assumed I wouldn’t like the Sound of Music. Until last Friday, I’d never actually seen the play, but I was certain I had enough information to make what seemed like an easy decision. I can remember walking through the living room during Christmas Eve broadcasts of the Julie Andrews movie version and hearing yodeling. And then there was that time I volunteered as a host for the sixth-grade choir festival and heard “My Favorite Things” dozens of times in a day. I can recall with horror that three-month stretch in 1998 when I couldn’t get “So Long, Farewell” out of my head. For the first 32 years of my life, I managed to avoid subjecting myself to the musical. But that all changed when I attended the Springfield Muni Opera’s opening night production of the iconic Rodgers and Hammerstein show – and the cast helped change my mind.

The story takes us to Austria, where we meet Maria Rainer (Mary Harmon) and several other nuns in a hillside abbey. Maria – more childlike and whimsical than devout and pious – has Mother Abbess concerned. Abbess, the Mother Superior, upon realizing that Maria is not ready for life in the abbey, sends her to care for the seven children of widower and Navy captain Georg Von Trapp.

Von Trapp (John O’Connor) was once a fun-loving father, but never recovered from the death of his wife. He runs an oppressive household, forcing his seven children to adhere to his strict code of rules. Maria will have none of it. She interrupts his orchestrated peace with songs, games and life.

The Captain leaves on a naval assignment and returns with Elsa (Julie Staley), his new bride-to-be. The Von Trapp children don’t like Elsa. They like Maria, and they know their father likes her, too. Unexpected love blossoms between Maria and the Captain as she bonds with his children, but outside of the household things are not so happy. In the months before World War II, the Nazi power is escalating – and they want to draft Von Trapp.  He refuses, and knows the family must flee. Through the charade of a festival concert the Von Trapps buy themselves the time needed to climb over the Alps and escape to freedom.

Greg Donathan, an Illinois Department on Aging social worker and first-time Muni director, says he jumped at the chance to direct what has become “a piece of the fabric of American musical theater.” When discussing the show, one of the first things he mentions is the sets, designed and built by T. David Parker and painted by Jane Allard. A towering four-panel panorama of the Alps greets the audience and helps transport us to Austria. The beautiful backdrop blends perfectly with the Muni grounds, allowing Donathan and choreographer Taryn Grant to take full advantage of the space. Maria’s entrance occurs in front of the stage near the lawn seats, as she does the Julie Andrews twirl. The two other main sets –  the Abbey and the Trapp Villa – are equally stunning and provide the perfect space in which these characters can come alive in Springfield’s outdoor amphitheater. 

click to enlarge Captain Von Trapp (John O’Connor, center) surrounded by Maria and his seven children. - PHOTO BY DONNA LOUNSBERRY
Captain Von Trapp (John O’Connor, center) surrounded by Maria and his seven children.
Captain Von Trapp (John O’Connor, center) surrounded by Maria and his seven children.

Donathan works with about 100 volunteers, including a cast of nearly 50 unpaid actors who have rehearsed for eight weeks. During that time, Harmon, as Maria, focused on building deep bonds with the seven young actors who portray the Von Trapp children. “Maria has to have a genuine love for the kids, and the audience has to see it,” she says. “Luckily, anyone would fall in love with these seven awesome actors.”

Harmon has a natural affinity for children; she teaches at Springfield’s Christ the King school. However, one thing almost stopped her from accepting her dream role – her age. “I thought that at 42, I was way too old, but a great group of family and supportive friends pushed me to do it,” she says.

Her decision paid off. It’s obvious from the early song, “Maria,” that the cast is skilled, the blocking is natural and the audience is in for a charming performance. When Maria arrives at the Von Trapp home and encounters the intimidating and cold Captain, her tenacity and spunk shine in every encounter. She’s there to care for the children, to fight for them, in spite of him. And her sincerity and humor reach to the very back row atop the grassy hill (where I took solace because apparently the audience loves to sing along. I don’t).

John O’Connor shows his range as Captain Von Trapp. As Maria awakens again his passion for life, we see him transform from a distant taskmaster into a loving husband and father once more. The seven young actors are all very strong – especially in “Lonely Goatherd” scene which gives them room to ham it up as they hide their fears during a spring thunderstorm. Somehow they make the world’s most annoying song more than tolerable – it’s endearing. Even the technical aspects of the thunder and lightning are good, a credit to lighting design by Kevin Zepp and sound by Daniel Shelton.

Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein wrote The Sound of Music in 1959 and it opened on Broadway the same year. The famed 1965 film version starring Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer won five Oscars, and the show has played in countries around the world ever since. Harmon says the musical is so popular because it’s a true love story. “It’s rooted in faith, and I think we can all relate to that,” she explains. “It’s a feel-good musical, and one about true love between man and woman, family, and God.”

Perhaps Mother Superior (Johna Keen) sums it up best when she tells Maria that “you must live the life you were born to live.” Keen can relate. Her husband was under temporary religious vows when they fell in love many years ago. Similarly, her grandparents were teaching through an order at the same Catholic school and met in the 1930s. They left their orders, were married 62 years, and had two children. “They were huge examples of love and faith in my life, and illustrate the point that the Sound of Music makes – that love between a man and a woman is holy, too,” Keen says.

It takes Maria a while to discover that. Mother Superior sends her back to the Captain. And as they realize they love each other, we’re rooting for them to realize it too. Maybe that’s why the musical is such a big part of our American tradition. It teaches us something. And it taught me something, too. I actually like The Sound of Music.

Zach Baliva is a filmmaker and journalist living in Chatham.

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