Hope's 'Music' Brings The Stage Alive

By Carolyn Hayes

Taylor Quick and Aleksandr Krapivnik as Liesl Von Trapp and Rolf Gruber in HSRT's "The Sound of Music." Photo: HSRT

How do you solve a problem like "The Sound of Music" (music by Richard Rodgers, lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse)? How do you reproduce the viewing experience of a ubiquitous Julie Andrews film that, among its iconic moments, transports the audience to the actual Austrian countryside? If director David Colacci is to be believed, you don't. Rather, in the opening production of its 43rd season, Hope Summer Repertory Theatre presents what is very much a stage production, and something vibrant and spectacular in its own right.

In the DeWitt Theatre venue on the campus of Hope College, the cavernous room and low-lying thrust stage bear a certain concert hall feel. Scenic designer Joseph Flauto keeps things simple with a metallic proscenium that frames the playing space. With minimal configuration, the bars can suggest the gates of the Nonnberg Abbey, where the rambunctious Maria (Amanda Giles) is failing to fit into a life of quiet piety, or the terrace of the Von Trapp Villa, where she must win over seven precocious, motherless children as their governess - ultimately healing a family and defying Nazi invaders with the power of music.

Not a shadow betrays lighting designer Stephen Sakowski, who keeps the action lit from all angles to further ensure that the audience's disparate viewing angles all afford a decent vantage. An abundance of body mics - doubtlessly keeping sound designer Amanda Werre busy and the sound board operator even busier - elevates spoken and sung voices to a comfortable volume, which is critical when a large, well-rounded orchestra (led by music director/conductor Fred Tessler) looms within sight just upstage.

There's nary a fake mountain to be found; instead, some clever visual imagery becomes the first of the production's conspicuously stage-y elements. Rather than feeling stripped down, however, the show channels its visual richness into costumes (by Kathryn Wagner, who makes quick-change wizards of stagehands and child actors alike) as well as scenic and property touches that effectively ground the scenes. Collectively, the design choices free up the long musical to progress with swiftness and agreeable flow, keeping the attention on the story and performances, which pay dividends thanks to consistently excellent casting and directorial substance.

In the face of the vast variety of themes and plots, this production exhibits both tremendous range and the ability to harmonize its many elements and tones. Among the biggest crowd-pleasing scenes concern Maria's formative experiences with the Von Trapp children, and Taylor Quick, Sam Lowry, Marlies Otteman, Adam Chamness, Piper Kendall, Mia Silguero, and Grace Ford integrate seamlessly into the adult cast. Adorable factor aside, the group appears to maneuver tricky harmonies and meticulous choreography (by Skye Edwards) virtually unassisted, showing an excellent grasp of the material and clear character work (Kendall's chronically candid Brigitta is a particular gem).

Yet the time and place force another story, one of political upheaval and encroaching danger. As the strongly nationalistic Austrian opinions of Captain Von Trapp (Dwight Tolar) change with the climate from outlying to dangerous, Colacci and company convincingly escalate the very real Nazi threat. They also break the tension just as easily in the form of capitulating Elsa (Kate Thomsen) and Max (Chip Duford), who somehow infuse their wrongheaded position with infectious sparkle and fun.

Finally, the show executes a major romantic reversal and crisis of conscience that can be tough to track for its quickness. But here, a growling Tolar believably reawakens and transforms into a soulful romantic lead, and the wisdom of Mother Abbess (Linda Dykstra) rattles the rafters with compassion.

But of course, this world revolves around Maria - and with good reason, as Giles handles the enormity of the show with underlying adaptability and control. Not only possessed of the vocal prowess befitting a charmer of children, her gangly, awkward characterization plays well with both frankness and subtext, often at the same time, and makes possible some great laugh lines. She's purely irrepressible, with a Sutton Foster energy that makes a misfit splendidly lovable.

In all, this "Music" doesn't intend to merely replicate, nor does it aim to subvert or break the mold. Instead, this production attempts the best possible live theatrical experience, and the result is an admirable collection of winning strengths. The show adeptly blends youthful songs with ballads, lively dancing with serious drama, and well-known beats and dialogue with fresh discoveries of surprising levity. Movie magic may be in short supply here, but if anything, this makes the indomitable magic of theater shine all the brighter.

REVIEW:

'The Sound of Music'

Hope Summer Repertory Theatre at DeWitt Theatre, 141 E. 12th St., Holland. 8 p.m. June 14, 20, 25, 28, July 2, 10, 16, 21, 24, 29, Aug. 2, 4 & 7. 2 hours, 40 minutes. $15-30. 616-395-7890. http://www.hope.edu/hsrt

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