Twitter is already chattering the praises of Eliza-Jane Scott as Maria. The real von Trapp children described Maria as a force of nature. That phrase applies to Scott. She sings like an angel, dances a heart-warmingly romantic duet with Dmitry Chepovetsky (as Captain von Trapp), and steals the audience’s hearts with her acting. The chemistry between Scott and Chepovetsky during their dance together lights up the whole stage.
Sometimes a reviewer has to reveal his/her biases, so I might as well do this up front. If a live performance moves and excites children, it’ll win me over. Children are a tough audience. Let down your guard and you lose them. Fast. I like to go to theatre for kids because performers have to be good to keep their attention.
This production does just that. At intermission, I was surprised (and delighted) to see how many children were in the audience. They’d been quietly attentive throughout the first half. At dramatic points in the plot, you could have heard a pin drop. At intermission there were no yawns, no fidgeting, no appeals to go home. When the lights flashed, the children were eager to get back into their seats. Before the show started, I heard adults chatting. Before the second half started, I heard children talking excitedly. Then the curtain rose and they were instantly quiet and attentive.
If you have children in the age range of the von Trapp children (5 to 16), take them to see this production of The Sound of Music. If you don’t have children of that age range, borrow some. Or if you just like being in the midst of an attentive engaged audience, bring a guest or go by yourself.
That said, this is not a show for everyone, particularly in Ottawa. The NAC Theatre originally announced this production as The Sound of Music (Sing-a-long). They’ve downplayed it in recent advertising, but at opening night, Artistic Director Jillian Keiley and Managing Director Nathan Medd encouraged the audience to sing along, whenever the house lights were raised, or when the spirit of the music moved them.
And sing along they did. Not always to the satisfaction of some audience members. One woman in my row left in a huff at the start of the first sing-a-long. My seat neighbour blocked out my baritone when I tried to join the singing audience. So if you want to hear professional voices on stage unspoiled by amateurs in the audience, this ain’t the show for you. (I should point out that even my neighbour joined in enthusiastically by the end of the show.)
This is not simply the 1965 film adapted for the stage. The script is from the original 1959 stage production, so there are noticeable differences. Furthermore, Director Joey Tremblay has taken a few liberties in interpreting the script. For instance when Mother Abbess (Quancetia Hamilton) sings, don’t expect a classically voiced interpretation. This is an Abbess with SOUL! Hamilton bends her notes to fit the gospel. And her harmonies with Sister Margaretta (Kristi Hansen) and Sister Sophia (Katie Ryerson) are divine.
Tremblay takes other liberties, but to reveal them would be to give serious spoilers. Let’s just say that there’s a richness to the harmonies in the nuns’ choral singing, much to the delight of the audience.
Speaking of chemistry, while I sometimes found Leah Doz’s (Liesl) singing a little weak in the upper range, her dancing with David Coomber (Rolf) during Sixteen Going on Seventeen is truly a delight to the eye. Rolf’s treatment of Liesl afterwards is all the more distressing because of the innocent intimacy of their dance together.
In fact, choreography throughout is a strong suit thanks to Dayna Tekatch. This should be no surprise to anyone who has seen the choreography of the NAC productions of Oliver or The Drowsy Chaperone. As my guest said after the dance number that opens the second half: “Oh, my!”
Actors will tell you: never perform with children; they steal the scene from you. This is particularly true of Clara Silcoff, who played the youngest von Trapp, Gretl, on opening night. (Silcoff shares the role with Hana Woo on alternate nights.) Keep your eyes out for this actor in the future.
A conniving vamp can bring plenty of tension to the plot, and Petrina Bromley chews the scenery in the role of the plotting Elsa Schräder. When she takes over the stage it’s not just the von Trapp children who fear her influence over their father. It’s a juicy role and Bromley makes the most of it.
Speaking of the stage, Tremblay doesn’t just use singing to engage the audience. The cast’s many forays into the audience brings the action almost into our laps. They bring the live into live theatre. You won’t get this action on Netflix.
Katie Ryerson’s role of Brigitta is pivotal in the play, and she’s a real firecracker. Like King Lear’s Fool, she speaks the truth to power. With little regard to the consequences. If you’ve seen Ryerson with A Company of Fools (Hal & Falstaff, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Henry V and A Midsummer Night’s Dream) you’ll know she brings a breadth of experience to her performance.
Which brings us to power. I’ve long thought that the villains of the film version were, dare I say, a little too Hollywood. No worries here. Zeller (Eric Davis) is the iron fist, and Admiral von Schreiber (Joey Tremblay) is the velvet glove of sinister power. Their presence is chilling (including von Schreiber’s evocative haircut). They are a real test of the mettle of naval hero Captain von Trapp. I had my doubts about Chepovetsky’s performance early on, but he shows real backbone in the scene with Zeller and von Schreiber.
Dramatic tension needs relief. It comes in two forms. Pierre Brault (butler Franz and others) provides comic relief just when you least expect it. To tell you more would spoil the surprises.
The other source is Sheldon Elter as the smarmy Max Dettweiler. He’s SO sleazy. No one trusts him, but he’s witty and oh so charming. He grows on you. (Even as you check that your wallet is still in your pocket.)
Musical Director Allen Cole makes his little three piece band sound a lot bigger than it is (with occasional assistance from Scott, Elter or Brault). They offer strong support to all those singers and dancers.
I could quibble more, but when a company makes so many children excited about live theatre, they get a lot of points from me.
And don’t forget to sing. I know you can do it, Ottawa.
Get your tickets early. Opening night was sold out and I hear that tickets are selling fast.
The Sound of Music by the NAC English Theatre is playing at the Theatre of the NAC till January 4th. Extra performances are being scheduled. Tickets start at $30.