And Then There Were Nuns

This musical boomerang can be habit-forming.

The Sound of Music Cain Park's Evans Amphitheater, Superior Avenue and Lee Road, Cleveland Heights Through July 8


The Jennifers (Goodson, left, and Cochran) prep for - a musical number.
The Jennifers (Goodson, left, and Cochran) prep for a musical number.
Most people associate The Sound of Music with Julie Andrews, but if it weren't for Mary Martin, the show wouldn't exist at all.

Martin was the Broadway legend who created the singing Peter Pan and was renowned for washing that man right out of her hair in the original South Pacific. Back in the late '50s, director Vincent J. Donehue, after guiding Martin through The Skin of Our Teeth, brought to his star's attention a German film concerning Maria von Trapp. This real-life Austrian songbird flew her cloister to marry a widowed baron, turning his progeny into the hottest family singing group since the four Cohans. After the Nazis invaded Austria, she took flight again, this time from Hitler's troops, and she and her family ended up as proprietors of a ski lodge in Vermont. Martin was savvy enough to see her story as the potential for a lucrative musical.

Martin and Donehue called in the noted playwriting team of Howard Lindsay and Russell Crouse to dramatize the story for the stage. Then they asked the immortal Rodgers and Hammerstein (in what would be their last score) to steer the emphasis away from the darkness inherent in the original story toward pure family entertainment. It all resulted in the musical goose that never stopped laying golden eggs.

In 1965, 20th Century Fox and Julie Andrews elevated the show from a smash into a worldwide cult. In Salzburg, where it was filmed, the site remains the top tourist magnet, with multitudes of Americans taking the Sound of Music tour, torturing their guides with endless renditions of "Edelweiss."

In live theater, it remains unstoppable. It's taken on the aura of sex, dividing our culture between those who shun it and those who can't get enough of it in any form.

The production at Cain Park's Evans Amphitheater wisely avoids trying for a radical reinterpretation. It passes all the criteria for a successful Sound of Music. First and foremost, there's Jennifer Goodson's glowing Nordic Maria, who's perky and vivacious in the de rigueur Barbie manner. She manages to be ruthlessly charming with the kids and coy with the captain. When Jennifer Cochran's Mother Abbess goes into her rendition of the dangerously sweet "Climb Ev'ry Mountain," a song that has inspired more diabetic comas than Hershey's entire output, Goodson displays meritorious bravery. She convincingly feigns reverence, revealing in her face the sudden inspiration to forsake the holy life and capture her captain. She juts her firm chin at a jaunty angle and successfully attains the sunny Wesson Oil wholesomeness of Florence Henderson, rather than the crisp English pluck of Andrews.

The evening is made buoyant with a handful of local pros, playing enjoyably against type. Jeanne Task, who has made a career out of Jewish fishwives, is deliciously improbable as both an overemphatic nun and lieder singer. Tom Fulton, revered acting teacher and purveyor of weighty classics, offers a maniacal portrayal of that perpetual scamp Max Detweiler.

Scott Plate as the butch captain eschews his trademark Norman Bates nervousness for a hearty romantic sophistication. With artificial gray temples and the mischievous twinkle of an Oscar Wilde scoundrel relishing his newfound respectability, he makes for a joyous paradox. Vocally, he is impeccable, bringing vitality to standards that seem as ancient and overfamiliar as the pyramids.

Director Fred Sternfeld specializes in revivals of Fiddler on the Roof. Here, he crosses the cultural divide with mixed success. He is to be complimented for avoiding the usual attempts to turn this musical into an approximation of its more famous film. He has gone back to the original 1959 script and restored the songs to their proper order. Sternfeld has a way with nuns and manages to keep the sugar level to bearable proportions. On the other hand, he needs to be slapped with a stale strudel for two critical misjudgments. As Rolf, Liesl's Hitler youth boyfriend, Dominic Roberts is so cool and dark, he suggests a grouchy Argentine gaucho rather than an ardent Nazi in the making. Roberts's reaction to his young lady love in "Sixteen, Going on Seventeen" is so disdainful, we expect him to deliver her personally to the Gestapo. The second misstep is a clumsily staged climactic escape. Among the many absurdities, the von Trapp girls prepare to straddle the Alps in their high heels, making an already implausible conclusion borderline ludicrous. These flaws, however, are no more hazardous to the overall welfare of the show than a pimple on Heidi.

Music director Larry Hartzell gives us Richard Rodgers's indelible waltzes with all their creamy charm intact. Set designer Jeff Herrmann's music-box set is exquisitely decorated with Dylan Fujimura's baroque wrought-iron fences, all lending the proper storybook atmosphere.

As critic Walter Kerr astutely pointed out about the original production, "I can only wish that someone had not been moved to abandon the snowflakes and substitute cornflakes." What remains essential after 42 years is that these corny flakes still retain their crispness and irrepressible flavor.

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