Strong performances by children, supporting actors highlight “The Sound of Music”
There is an old adage in theater that goes, “Never try to upstage a kid or a dog.” Director Terrance McKerrs understands this well in his new production of “The Sound of Music” at Theatre Lawrence.
The seven Von Trapp children are all delightful. Every moment they are onstage, the show transcends its humble surroundings and transports the audience to the idealized Austria of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s imagination. Indeed, the children are so talented that Erin Fox has her best moments as Maria when she is onstage with them.
Several of the performances are noteworthy. Abby Ilardi is charming as the too-eager Liesl. Her big scene with Rolf (Jacob Leet) is both funny and sweet. As the two sing and dance to “Sixteen Going on Seventeen,” Ilardi pursues Leet around the stage trying to get him to kiss her. When at last he does, she goes over the moon. It’s all wonderfully uplifting.
Jordan Pine delivers a nice performance as the precocious Brigitta. She sees everything going on around her, which one wonders how she can accomplish, since she constantly has her nose in a book. Pine’s rendering of the character is honest and familiar to anyone with a bookworm child.
But five-year-old Delilah Pellow as Gretl provides many of the production’s best moments. She steals the show, runs away and hides with it. She is so adorably cute it is hard to remember to watch any of the other actors when she is onstage — a fact McKerrs recognizes and exploits perfectly. Despite her tender age, she has no trouble standing up in front of a sold-out house and delivering her lines loudly, clearly and sweetly.
When the children aren’t onstage, several of the adults in supporting roles also give strong performances. Robin Bonsall is smooth and graceful as Baroness Elsa Schrader, the woman whom Captain von Trapp (Knute Pittenger) is initially involved with when Maria comes into his life. Bonsall sings beautifully and seems completely at home onstage in her few scenes, creating more chemistry with Pittenger than Fox does as Maria. Charles Whitman is quite funny as Von Trapp’s butler, Franz, and Erica Fox provides some laughs as the fussy maid, Frau Schmidt.
The chorus of nuns and postulants, headed by Sarah Young’s Mother Abbess, is extraordinary. They sing gorgeously, provide the right amount of comic relief, and many of them double as stagehands. Young renders her signature song, “Climb Ev’ry Mountain,” beautifully. It is easily one of the production's highlights.
Technically, the show is uneven. Costumer Megan Whitaker seems to think 1930’s-era Austrian postulants were allowed to wear fashion boots, and several of Pittenger’s costumes were ill-fitting, something a strict naval captain would never have tolerated. On the other hand, the children’s costumes were often clever, and, in a nice touch, Gretl’s rag doll was dressed exactly as she was in every scene they were in — including the doll wearing a bridesmaid’s gown during the wedding.
Scene changes were also a problem. McKerrs alternated between having them occur while action was happening downstage, which was distracting, and having them be done in total darkness, making one fear for the safety of the stagehands.
McKerrs also insisted spotlights be confined tightly to the face when they were used, and this caused the spot operator to miss the target when the light came on and struggle to follow actors when they moved.
The set, however, was magnificent. Jack Riegle has made a habit out of creating clever sets on Theatre Lawrence’s tiny stage, and he made sure his final major musical in the current space was a stunner. In particular, the abbey was gorgeous with wrought-iron gates and stained-glass windows that were beautifully backlit. The back wall painting of the Alps by Mary Ann Saunders was majestic and lovely.
In the end, the problems with the show could not dispel its magic. Strong performances by the children and several of the supporting actors on an impressive set served to stir the heart, lift the spirits and bring a tear to the eye. “The Sound of Music” is great holiday fare for the whole family.