By Debbie L. Hochberg / Correspondent
MILLBURN, NJ — “The Sound of Music” — put that great American classic onstage at the Paper Mill Playhouse and you have a wonderful family experience for the holiday season. I would say most of us — of a certain age at least — are familiar with the 1965 movie starring Julie Andrews and its iconic songs, such as “My Favorite Things,” “Climb Ev’ry Mountain,” “Do-Re-Mi” and the title song, “The Sound of Music,” all written by the musical dynamic duo Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II.
For those of you who are a bit younger and might be unfamiliar with this story, it tells of a young postulant, Maria Rainer, whom the mother superior feels is not yet sure enough to commit to being a nun. It is decided that Maria will temporarily become a governess to a widowed father’s seven children to give her time to see what her calling truly is. While there, Maria develops a strong bond with the children, and she and the father, Capt. Georg von Trapp, soon fall in love.
This musical, directed by Paper Mill producing artistic director Mark S. Hoebee, with book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, which is loosely based on a true story, is set in Austria in early 1938 against the backdrop of the beginning of the Nazi invasion there during World War II. Von Trapp, who had been a decorated naval commander for Austria, is sought after by the Nazi Party to enlist with them. Being a fiercely loyal Austrian opposed to the war and the Nazi Party, he is unwilling to join the Nazis, so he and his family must either escape from Austria or face the consequences of their country’s invaders.
Maria is played by Broadway actress Ashley Blanchet, who was last seen at the Paper Mill Playhouse in the title role of “Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella,” and she is just as fabulous in this production. Her voice is beautiful, and, although there is a sweetness to her, when she must stand up to von Trapp, played by Broadway actor Graham Rowat, she is quite forceful and commands the stage. The captain had become hardened after his first wife died, but Maria breaks through that tough facade. Rowat gives a fine performance as the authoritative and commanding former Navy captain and caring father, and his singing with Blanchet and the other members of the cast sounds just perfect.
The mother superior, known as Mother Abbess in this show, is played by Cáitlín Burke, whose singing is powerful. And, although she first appears imposing, she is wise and always gives Maria good, sound advice.
The seven children in this production — Analise Scarpaci as Liesl, Coleman Simmons as Friedrich, Jacey Sink as Louisa, Cody Braverman as Kurt, Tara Rajan as Brigitta, Austin Elle Fisher as Marta and Charlotte Sydney Harrington as Gretl — really steal the show. They are all adorable and extremely talented in acting, singing and dancing — true triple threats. It is fun to hear them sing and watch them as they perform.
Andrew Alstat gives a realistic performance as Rolf Gruber, Liesl’s love interest. Their duet in “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” conveys that special innocence of young love, and it is quite lovely. Although Rolf joins the Nazi Party, in the end he does the right thing by the von Trapp family, when he discovers their hiding place and doesn’t turn them in.
Emily Borromeo, who plays Elsa Schraeder, von Trapp’s initial love interest, and Gavin Lee, who plays Max Detweiler, a business associate/friend of von Trapp, are both standout actors and are perfectly suited to their roles.
The choreography by Kenny Ingram and the costume design by Leon Dobkowski, based on original costume design by Catherine Zuber, are terrific and what one would expect from the Paper Mill Playhouse.
The scenic design by Kelly James Tighe is based on the original scenic design by James Fouchard. The church and the von Trapp family home are gorgeous.
I do, however, take exception to the giant Nazi flag with the enormous swastika in the center, which is the main centerpiece of the backdrop during the talent show scene. The von Trapps’ plan to escape Austria is to perform at a talent show and then disappear as the show is ending, while the judges are deciding the winners. During this scene, there is an armed guard on either side of the stage, each with a large gun and a swastika armband. That, along with the “heil Hitlers” and more armed guards with swastika armbands in several parts of the show, is enough to convey the Nazi element, without having an oversize symbol of hate looming so large.
I understand that it is theater, but during these times when antisemitism is rampant and ratcheting up in this country and around the world, including a giant symbol of hatred as part of the set is gratuitous and potentially dangerous. In deference to that flag of hate, millions of men, women and children — 6 million of them Jewish — were systematically murdered. Since we are so much further away in time from the Holocaust, it may be a good idea to include a paragraph or two in the program to educate the theatergoers. Theater is entertainment, yes, but used wisely, it also has the power to enlighten, educate and transform.
“The Sound of Music” will be playing through Jan. 1 at the Paper Mill Playhouse. Tickets may be purchased by calling 973-376-4343, going to the Paper Mill Playhouse box office at 22 Brookside Drive in Millburn or visiting papermill.org.
Photos Courtesy of Evan Zimmerman and Jeremy Daniel