“The Sound of Music” doesn’t quite climb every mountain

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Jill Christine Wiley as Maria Rainer and the von Trapp children photo by Matthew Murphy

The Sound of Music is best remembered by many from the Julie Andrews movie version, which also starred Christopher Plummer and the spectacular Alps. Based on the true story of the von Trapp family, the musical, which features such beloved songs as “Climb Every Mountain”, “My Favorite Things,” “Do Re Mi,” “Edelweiss,” and the stirring title song, was a fitting culmination of the creative career of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. The Sound of Music recently appeared at the State Theatre in New Brunswick, and while the music is still glorious, this incarnation of the show is a little tired.

The story is so familiar it doesn’t need recapping here. While the ensemble is quite good and the supporting characters attack their roles with gusto, the evening is a letdown because of the bland performances of the two leads. Jill-Christine Wiley’s Maria is metronomic in her first couple of numbers, but although her singing improves her emotional range stays static throughout. Meanwhile, Mike McLean’s performance as Captain von Trapp is wooden, robbing just about any measure of dramatic believability from those scenes where his cold personality thaws. This Maria and Captain don’t quite connect, removing the show’s emotional center.

Jake Mills’ portrayal of impresario Max Detweiler gives needed humor to the proceedings, and his two duets with Melissa McKamie’s Baroness Elsa Schraeder are cynical comic gems. As the Mother Abbess, Lauren Kidwell unleashes a powerful voice in the iconic “Climb Every Mountain” number, which closes out both acts, yet is delightfully playful in a duet with Ms. Wiley on “My Favorite Things.” The children are uniformly entertaining, with special mention going to Keslie Ward’s Liesl, the eldest daughter; Madeleine Guilbot’s Gretl, the youngest daughter; and Katie Grgecic’s wry comic take on middle daughter Brigitta.

Jonathan Warren does well in recreating the choreography of Danny Mefford, but Matt Lenz’s take on Jack O’Brien’s original direction fares less well. The show as a whole seems a little rushed, especially in the second act. In the show’s climactic scene in the abbey’s garden, there was no rationale given for actions taken, draining the scene of its power. The darkness of the scene’s lighting design did not help in this regard, masking any facial expressions that could have helped the audience’s understanding.

The singing is uniformly good, and the outstanding orchestra is one of the best I’ve heard. For those who enjoy the music of Rodgers and Hammerstein and who have not heard it performed live in a theatre, the show will be worth seeing. This production of The Sound of Music will return to the area in late April at the Merriam Theatre in Philadelphia. Information about the tour can be found at TheSoundofMusicOnTour.com.

The Sound of Music was presented at the State Theatre in New Brunswick from December 22-24. The next production in the State Theatre’s Broadway season will be Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella, playing February 9-10. For tickets and information, visit STNJ.org/Broadway.