Even those who find The Sound of Music to be too saccharine for their taste buds (and I proudly include myself in that category) are likely to be won over by the Paper Mill Playhouse's beautifully-sung revival of the 1959 musical, which has been directed and choreographed with a firm hand by James Brennan.
The final musical collaboration between composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II, The Sound of Music explores how somewhat freewheeling Maria (Elena Shaddow) goes from being the most misfit nun in all of Salzburg, to the unexpected governess of the seven children of widowed former naval captain Georg von Trapp (Ben Davis), to the captain's new wife, who must help the entire family flee Austria right after the Nazis come to power.
In addition to featuring all the classic songs of the original stage version (including "My Favorite Things," "Sixteen Going on Seventeen" and "Climb Every Mountain"), this production also includes two songs, "I Have Confidence" and "Something Good," which were written for the 1965 Oscar-winning film version starring Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer.
What makes this superb production work so well is the spot-on casting, starting with Shaddow (La Cage aux Folles), who makes for a delicate and quirky Maria. If you didn't know better, you might think she was the eighth von Trapp child. Better still, Shaddow manages to breathe life into the rather flowery lyrics of the title song through her dreamy-eyed, wistful sincerity, while during "Do-Re-Mi," it appears as if she is actually improvising the lyrics as she goes along.
Tony Award winner Ben Davis (La Boheme) somewhat overplays Captain von Trapp's harsh nature in the character's famous first scene. But once he literally throws his annoying whistle offstage, the handsome Davis makes for a suave and dashing leading man.
Edward Hibbert (The Drowsy Chaperone) stands out in the supporting role of wily talent scout Max Detweiler with his sly demeanor and expert comedic timing. Donna English (Nice Work If You Can Get It) is equally fantastic as Elsa Schraeder, the smart businesswoman who almost marries Captain von Trapp.
Suzanne Ishee (The Phantom of the Opera) portrays the Mother Abbess as nurturing and genuinely sympathetic to Maria, making you wonder whether the character once gave up on her own dream and is now vicariously living through her. Mary Stout (Beauty and the Beast) also makes a lasting impression as the disapproving Sister Berthe with her bulging facial expressions.
As expected, all the young actors playing the von Trapp children (Chelsea Morgan Stock, Sean McManus, Amanda Harris, Hunter A. Kovacs, Maya Fortgang, Gracie Beardsley and Greta Clark) are quite adorable. Only former American Idol star Anthony Federov (Rent) is rather bland as Liesl's suitor, Rolf.
Unfortunately, the production ends on a somewhat uncomfortable note when the gentlemen who portray the Nazis do not take off their armbands during their bows at curtain call. Yikes.