by MIKE CHAIKEN
Rodger and Hammerstein’s “The Sound of Music” is an American stage musical chestnut.
The show has been performed by professional companies, of course. It’s also been tackled by community theater groups and high school drama clubs.
There is even a “The Sound of Music, Jr.” for the younger performers out there.
And many of the scenes of the film have been skewered by sketch groups and parodists for years.
So, when a professional theater troupe sets up stakes on stages across the country in a new national tour, it has to overcome memories of some “okay” performances through the years and a lot of stage musical overkill.
Plus, any professional company has to overcome the biggest elephant in the music hall.
Andrews is so tied to the role of the young postulant Maria Rainier, who melts the heart of Captain von Trapp and wins the love of the von Trapp children, any actress who plays the central character walks a minefield of audience expectations.
Jill-Christine Wiley is not Julia Andrews. But in the performance at the Bushnell Theater in Hartford on May 17, she proved an actress doesn’t have to be Andrews to maintain a standard of excellence in “The Sound of Music.”
Wiley’s Maria is sweet and endearing. Wiley manages to steer away from letting the almost-nun become too saccharine. Vocally, Riley provides the show with an effortless, full soprano. She injects her solo numbers with heart-stirring emotion.
Most importantly, despite Julie Andrews’ shadow over the role of Maria, Wiley makes the role her own. You quickly forget about Andrews as Wiley charms you with her performance.
The children who play the seven von Trapp children—Liesl (Lauren O’Brien), Friedrich (Ed Turner), Louisa (Jenna Seasholtz), Kurt (Ethan Douglas Cutillo), Brigitta (Emily Strugatsky), Marta (Riley O’Kane), and Gretl (Quinn Eden Titcomb) — are adorable. They interact well together and with the adult cast members. And given the amount of stage time their roles have, they all proved to be extremely disciplined actors.
Mike McLean, as Captain von Trapp, has the necessary military bearing of an officer in the Austrian Navy. But he also quickly demonstrates that the captain has a heart waiting to be melted. And some of his musical interludes are filled with delightful tenderness.
Ariana Valdes, who had tons of adoring friends and fans in the audience this nigh, stepped in as an understudy for the role of the Mother Abbess. She gave a rousing performance of one of “The Sound of Music’s” signature compositions, “Climb Ev’ry Mountain.”
There was plenty to like with this road show, but there were hitches in the evening.
Some of the direction by Jack O’Brien seemed a little stilted. This wasn’t so much the case with the leads and the children. But the supporting players seemed a bit lacking. Mostly, the incidental actors seemed like props for lines rather than characters in this world we were witnessing on stage.
Musically, conductor Michael Gildin and the orchestra were true to the spirit of the original score and then some. The music definitely stirred the emotions. Some numbers brought me to the brink of tears. I also couldn’t help but smile when Wiley and Valdes sang, “My Favorite Things.”
In the canon of American musical theater, “The Sound of Music” is the equivalent of a Shakespeare play. There are lots of people mounting a production of the show. But, at least once in a lifetime, you should seek a professional company and see the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic done right.
Despite the minor flaws I saw, the national tour of “The Sound of Music” gets a lot right.
I give “The Sound of Music” at The Bushnell in Hartford 3 out of 4 stars.