Thursday, February 14, 2013
Theatre review: Plaza Theatre reaches for the stars with The Sound of Music
It's a huge production. Can they pull it off?
CLEBURNE I’m not sure if there’s a musical out there more beloved by audiences everywhere than The Sound of Music. We grew up singing it. The role of Maria, originated on stage by the late Mary Martin and on film by the incomparable Julie Andrews, is familiar to generations of musical theater lovers. It pits nuns against Nazis, and the nuns win. An innocent young ingénue melts the ice cold heart of a widower naval captain. And above all, it revolves around seven adorable and charming children who steal your heart with songs that stay in your head forever.
It’s a huge show and there’s no escaping that. It isn’t a show that can be done in a minimalistic style. The settings range from mansions to abbeys to actual mountainsides and the cast is unavoidably large. There are nuns and novices, Nazis and Hitler’s youth, Austrian gentry and common folk. There are elaborate puppet shows and ballroom scenes with couples dancing the Lindler and music festivals in Salzburg. So it isn’t exactly the most logical choice for a small theater-in-the-round in Cleburne, Texas. Still, if any such theater could pull it off, it’s Plaza Theatre.
And for the most part, they do, mainly through brilliant direction from team of Jodie and Soni Barrus, and their smart casting of the seven Von Trapp children and Meredith Browning as Maria. Browning is utterly charming and perfectly idealistic. Her enthusiasm is catching, and her energy is unflagging. Through the first act, which has almost non-stop song after song for her and the Von Trapp children, she holds the show together with her youthful passion and sense of fun. She does not do it alone, however. A huge round of applause should be given to the seven child actors who play Captain Von Trapp’s children. They are talented, well-rehearsed, and utterly loveable from the first time they are introduced until they bravely prepare for their march over the Alps into Switzerland to escape the Nazis at the show’s close.
In fact, I didn’t fully recognize their contribution until the second act. This is where the limitations of Plaza’s small space are most evident Plaza’s transitions are seamless, like masterfully choreographed dances. Set Designer JaceSon P. Barrus performed wonders. The flowers and boulders of the Austrian Alps make way for the stark and religious confines of the Abbey, which in turn morphs into the sumptuous parlor of the Von Trapp mansion.
There are the gardens, both the terrace where the machinations of Frau Schraeder and Max Detweiler play out as well as the infamous solarium where Liesl and Rolf sweetly sing “Sixteen Going on Seventeen.” There is the ballroom where the Austrian nobility dance while Nazi Germany steals control of their country out from under them, and the Captain and Maria fall in love while teaching the Lindler to Kurt; the exterior churchyard of the Abbey where the Von Trapp family hides from the pursuing German soldiers; the grand Abbey interior where the Captain and Maria are married; Maria’s bedroom which appears only for one pivotal scene during which the unforgettable “Raindrops on Roses” is sung and she devises her plan to make play clothes for the children out of her curtains. The sets are impeccable and the transitions unimpeachable.
However, there is something lost in every blackout, even when the recorded orchestra never skips a beat, thanks to Sound Designer G. Aaron Siler. The first act of the show is a constant tease, pulling the audience in and then letting them go during another scene transition. In a larger space, one part of the stage can fade to black while the lights come up on another part, on another set and another scene. In a space as small as the Plaza, though, the only option is constant blackouts, and it unfortunately affected the pace of the show negatively, though not enough to detract from the audience’s enjoyment.
Adding to the technical excellence is Tina Barrus’ costumes. I don’t know how the Plaza does it, but every time I see a show at this tiny theater out in the Texas prairie, I am blown away by the costumes. Barrus surpasses anything I’ve yet seen there. The nuns, the aristocrats, the Nazis, and the servants are period perfect and beautifully clothed. The costumes of the Von Trapp children, especially, are supremely clever and masterfully executed. Their first appearance in matching uniforms gradually gives way to the play clothes Maria crafts for them from curtains, and eventually to outfits specific to each child. Where they are identical when we first see them, by the second act they each have their own personality shining through in their costumes.
Even when the script necessitates they be dressed similarly, such as their performance at the music festival or the Von Trapp wedding, the costumes are beautifully designed and crafted. Maria’s wedding dress is exquisite, managing to be both opulent and modest at the same time, and Georg, appearing for the first and only time in his captain’s uniform, is absolutely dashing. It’s early in the season still, but I can’t imagine not giving a nod to Tina Barrus when it’s time for next year’s Column Award nominations.
The musical aspect of this show is phenomenal. The nuns, led by Kathy Lemons as the Mother Abbess, have an almost transcendent quality to their a cappella numbers, and the classic “(How Do You Solve a Problem Like) Maria” is perfectly harmonized. One or two of the sisters were suffering from the allergy epidemic that’s plaguing most of North Texas at the moment, but apart from a few missed notes in the higher registers, there were few missteps. Lemons is superb. Her clear soprano, though it lacks the power the role ideally calls for, carries beautifully.
The other supporting singers are equally talented. Tabitha Barrus as Liesel has some difficulty with the higher register notes in “Sixteen Going on Seventeen,” but overall she and Robert Twaddell, who plays Rolf, give high-caliber and heart-warming performances. When JaceSon P. Barrus as Georg Von Trapp sings, his resonant baritone carries a haunting type of authority that goes perfectly with the role. His rendition of “Edelweiss” won’t soon be forgotten.
Meredith Browning is a great casting choice for Maria. Though she has some difficulty in that awkward place between chest and head voice in some numbers, namely the title song “The Sound of Music,” her talent is undeniable. Her voice plays over the notes of “Do Re Mi” with abandon and yet softens with husky undertones during the love ballad “Something Good” with Captain Von Trapp. Yet nowhere does she shine more than when performing with the seven Von Trapp children. I cannot say enough about this troop of youngsters, whose harmony never falters and energy never wavers.
Over and over again in my notes I used the word “charming”, yet they go beyond charming. They are enchanting, especially Miranda Barrus as young Gretel. The role is designed to warm the hearts of the audience,but it isn’t without its demands. She has a good amount of lines, numerous group numbers, and several important solo bits that have to be dead on, and Miranda pulls them all off. Kudos to her, and I look forward to seeing her in many area shows in the future.
The musical talents and charm of Maria and the children carry the first act. In the second act, with the pressure from the Germans affecting the business and love lives of Captain Von Trapp and his companions, the adults are finally called upon to act. Unfortunately, they are not half as successful as their younger counterparts. Without the music to hide behind, they are awkward and stilting.
Even the production elements, to this point impeccable, seems to suffer along with them as sound problems suddenly emerge - characters are left to speak their lines without working microphones - and bulky set pieces inexplicably block the view of entire segments of the audience; an inexcusable design problem for theater-in-the-round. The chemistry between JaceSon P. Barrus as Georg and Browning as Maria is so non-existent as to border on uncomfortable during their love scenes, and the awkwardness during the closing scene when the family escapes into the mountains is almost oppressive. It’s too bad that the show ends on a low note because I was thoroughly impressed through the majority of it.
Maybe Plaza overreached a little, staging such a huge show in such a small space; the curtain call alone took up nearly their entire stage, without exaggeration. But I can’t imagine any small theater-in-the-round staging The Sound of Music more successfully, and as always, their production elements are exceptional and their dedication to rehearsing until achieving perfection is evident. Overall, this is another success for Plaza Theatre, and I can’t wait to see their next production.
Pegasus News Content partner - John Garcia's The Column
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