FRANKLIN, Tenn. – No offense intended to the well-loved film version, but I don’t need a helicopter shot of the Austrian Alps to feel the hills are alive with The Sound of Music. I just need Studio Tenn Theatre Company’s practically perfect production.
The exquisite artist’s eye of director/designer Matt Logan has focused on keeping this Richard Rogers/Oscar Hammerstein II classic close to the heart while avoiding the surfeit of sentiment that produces theatrical treacle. His colleagues from New York and the Nashville area are among the best in the business, and they make the score as well as Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse’s book truly sing.
Is there anyone reading this that hasn’t seen the 1965 film? Well, the musical that premiered on Broadway in 1959 with Mary Martin as Maria and Theodore Bikel as Captain von Trapp was mostly the same (minus the wonderful backdrops of the aforementioned mountain range and various Salzburg-area locations of course). There were some changes, like the songs “I Have Confidence” and “Something Good” that stage revivals typically do now, which were written for the film by Rogers (Hammerstein died of cancer nine months after the show’s New York opening).
Broadway vets Jessica Grové and Ben Davis (with Great White Way appearances in A Little Night Music, Les Misérables and Thoroughly Modern Millie among their combined credits) headline this production. Both provide everything one could wish for in their performances.
Grové sings like an angel from the moment the first bars of the title song hit the air and clearly acknowledges Maria’s difficult choice between becoming a bride of Christ or the wife of the man she loves. Her Maria cheers one and all (minus those nasty Nazis of course) with her good humor and exuberance.
Davis’ rugged baritone and powerful presence make his portrayal of a poised but vulnerable man riveting to watch. Forgive my personal indulgence, but my paternal grandfather loved “Edelweiss,” and as Davis sang it Thursday I could see the man I loved and miss so much smiling as if he were seated beside me at the performance. Mr. Davis, I humbly thank you for that.
If they were the only standouts this Sound of Music would sparkle. Others in this well-cast show are just as good, though, and first among equals is Nashville’s Nan Gurley as the Mother Abbess.
I’ve known the über-talented Gurley for many years and even acted with her in a 1989 production of Tennessee Repertory Theatre’s Christmas Memories, so I happily admit I’m biased in her favor. Nevertheless, when she sang “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” it (to quote what I told Studio Tenn Managing Director Jake Speck after the show) “made not just my spine but my entire body tingle.” And the sold-out audience agreed with me – no number opening night got the rapturous volume of applause her Act I finale received.
Marguerite Lowell (Baroness Schraeder/Nun), Matthew Carlton (Max Detweiler), David Compton (Herr Zeller), Christopher R.C. Bosen (Franz), Shelean Newman (Frau Schmidt/Nun), Douglas Waterbury-Tieman (Rolf) and Fred Mullen (Baron Elberfeld/Admiral von Schreiber) are among those providing impeccable support to the story. The actors playing the von Trapp children (Kelsey Self, Jack Alcott, Annabelle Fox, Matthew Dyra, Mary Marguerite Hall, Virginia Richardson and Bella Higginbotham) are adorable, and they’re quite accomplished performers as well.
A special nod is due to the aforementioned nuns and their fellow sisters (vocal director Laura Matula, Melodie Madden Adams, Linda Sue Simmons, Ruth Berends, Lindsay Terrizzi Hess and Emily Webb). They give the most moving and harmonic renditions I’ve ever heard (and I’ve seen several productions of this musical over the years) of such numbers as “Preludium,” “Morning Hymn,” “Gaudeamus Domino” and “Confitemini Domino.”
Logan, also the company’s artistic director, once again proves he has no betters in this region (or likely elsewhere) when it comes to set and costume design. Two large arched escapes (used as entrances and exits) have a European flavor but are appropriately non-specific so they can represent parts of a great house, an abbey or other settings equally well. A scrim not far from the back wall serves as the screen for projections that convey various backdrops (my favorite is a large circular stained glass window that greets us at the abbey). His costumes in every detail set us colorfully and stylishly in 1930’s Austria. And Sondra Nottingham makes sure hair and wigs fit that period well too.
Emily Tello’s choreography is crisp and entertaining in such pieces as “Do Re Mi,” “The Lonely Goatherd” and “So Long, Farewell.” Music Director Chris Rayis has his musical colleagues in the pit playing as if they had been given every note nuance by Rogers himself.
Stephen Moss’ striking lights and Danny Northup’s pure sound don’t miss a beat in more ways than one. Everything from light cues to microphones worked so smoothly Thursday, which is never as easy to accomplish as it looks or sounds.
Studio Tenn has served notice that Middle Tennessee theater can be as good as theater anywhere. They have challenged themselves to deliver the highest quality entertainment to their audiences. The Sound of Music adds to their already impressive list of shows that have met that challenge. Thank you to all involved.
Studio Tenn Theatre Company’s production of Rogers and Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music continues through June 17 at The Franklin Theatre, 419 Main St. Performances at 7 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays and 2 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays. Tickets ($42.75-$57.50) and more information are available at www.studiotenn.com.
*All photos courtesy Studio Tenn.