Amanda Watkins and Robert Cuccioli in The Sound of Music(Photo © Gerry Goodstein)
Amanda Watkins and Robert Cuccioli in The Sound of Music
(Photo © Gerry Goodstein)
The Sound of Music must be one of the most difficult musicals to produce successfully. With a Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II score that everyone already knows by heart, a book (by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse) that weaves children, nuns, and Nazis together in a story without many complexities, and a lush film version that is unquestionably more famous than the original property, does the show have anything much to offer audiences in 2003? Believe it or not, the answer is yes: The new Paper Mill production of The Sound of Music is the best I've ever seen.

That's not to say that it's particularly bold or takes many chances; even minor attempts to make this show more daring or realistic might throw off the fragile balance that makes it work. (This was one of my key problems with the 1998 Broadway revival and subsequent tour.) Rather than try to reinvent the show, director-choreographer James Brennan has highlighted the qualities that are already present in the script and score.

This is a rather uncommon approach -- most stage productions are intent on replicating the film in one way or another -- but the choices made by Brennan and his company seem so obvious that one can only wonder why they're not made more often. Maria, the novice nun who is sent to serve as governess for Captain Georg von Trapp's seven children, is not just filled with Julie Andrews's trademark spunk; the Mother Abbess is down to earth and friendly, credible both as Maria's confidant and as a mother figure; Elsa Schraeder, the businesswoman whom Captain von Trapp thinks he wants to marry, is not an unduly nasty home wrecker, which makes her position in regard to the Nazis' annexation of Austria almost tragic in its implications; von Trapp's servants accurately reflect the political struggles of the World War II era within the villa's walls; and the children, rather than simply looking cute and saying cute things, figure prominently in the Maria/Georg romance at the center of the story.

This is all brought to the fore by careful attention to detail. Take, for example, the thunder that sound designer Randy Hansen has concocted for the scene in Maria's bedroom where the children are frightened by a storm: The sound of the thunder is wall-shaking, making it all the more believable that the governess and the kids have to sing "The Lonely Goatherd" loud enough to drown it out. Or look at the staging of "Sixteen Going on Seventeen" for Liesl (the eldest von Trapp daughter) and her messenger boyfriend Rolf. It's playful but with enough serious undertones to suggest that the story hinges on this relationship -- which, in a way, it does.

Just about all of the performances are in line with Brennan's "back to basics" approach. Amanda Watkins finds a way to successfully fuse the energetic, confused, and virginal sides of Maria, making a convincing journey from convent girl to wife and mother -- and her natural sounding soprano is ideal for her songs. Donna English as Elsa and Ed Dixon as the lovable freeloader Max Detweiler are as good in their scenes as their songs. Elizabeth Lundberg's Liesl is the most youthful and innocent I've seen; her Rolf at the performance I saw was understudy Scott Duquette, but it's difficult to imagine Mark Willett being better at conveying the character's conflictedness. All of the von Trapp children are played well but Allison Brustofski is particularly funny as the daring little gossiper Brigitta, and Nicholas Jonas's professional, polished performance as Kurt suggests that he has the makings of an ideal song-and-dance man; within the next 10 or 15 years, he'll doubtless make a name for himself.

Bottom to top: Caroline London, TiffanyGiardina, Allison Brustofski, NicholasJonas, Krista Pioppi, Daniel Plimpton,and Elizabeth Lundbergin The Sound of Music(Photo © Gerry Goodstein)
Bottom to top: Caroline London, Tiffany
Giardina, Allison Brustofski, Nicholas
Jonas, Krista Pioppi, Daniel Plimpton,
and Elizabeth Lundberg
in The Sound of Music
(Photo © Gerry Goodstein)
Only two performances slightly miss the mark. Meg Bussert doesn't have quite the weight of voice for an ideal performance of "Climb Every Mountain," which demands to be a show-stopping first act finale, but her characterization is wonderfully warm and her rapport with Watkins is first-rate. While Robert Cuccioli is ideal in the show's early scenes of the show when Captain von Trapp's stiffness and stuffiness have robbed the family of music, his transformation after falling in love with Maria is not clearly delineated.

Still, the overall effect of this Sound of Music is so strong that these shortcomings are of little importance. The orchestra (led by music director Tom Helm) sounds very good and the production's continuity of tone extends to the sets (by Michael Anania), costumes (Cathleen Edwards), and lighting (F. Mitchell Dana). The design elements accent the material rather than overwhelm it, from the dark halls of Nonnberg Abbey to the bright, hopeful look of the von Trapp villa.

Thanks in large part to Brennan, the songs -- regardless of their familiarity -- evolve naturally from the action and never halt the forward progress of the plot. More importantly, while Brennan has chosen to add "I Have Confidence" from the film version (music and lyrics by Rodgers) and replaced "An Ordinary Couple" with "Something Good" (also from the film, also penned entirely by Rodgers), he has otherwise been quite faithful to the original intentions of the authors. The final moments of this production brought tears to my eyes, so I can only imagine how deeply that finale will stir those who've never before seen the show live. Brennan has proven that the stage version of The Sound of Music cannot and should not be easily dismissed.