Sunday, November 18, 2018

ASF: "The Sound of Music"

Rodgers and Hammerstein's beloved The Sound of Music -- their last collaboration in 1959 -- is currently on the boards at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival in Artistic Director Rick Dildine's inventively stunning production.

Eschewing elaborate stage scenery and a grand orchestral score -- Mr. Dildine's production substitutes strikingly minimalist set pieces and a pair of baby grand pianos placed strategically at center stage -- the story of the Von Trapp family on the brink of the Nazi takeover of Austria, is both a heartwarming family musical drama that celebrates the courage of individuals who stand up for their principles, and a prescient warning against the dangers of complacent people among us who even today compromise principle for the empty promises of dictators.

The multi-award winning musical has been revived several times, and of course is well known from the 1965 film. It has given us so many familiar songs: "Do-Re-Mi", "My Favorite Things", "Sixteen Going on Seventeen", "Climb Every Mountain", and Edelweiss" among them. And the story of Maria (a young woman preparing to be a nun who is sent to be a governess to the seven children of a wealthy widower) as she navigates between her world of devotion to God and the calling of the secular roles of marriage and family, has become a part of musical theatre's indelible legacy.

Maria [Courtney Bassett] struggles with her vocation and is given common-sense advice from the Mother Abbess [Ann Arvia] to experience the world before making her final vows. And when she meets Captain Von Trapp [Gil Brady] it quickly becomes evident that they are a good match, garnering the approval of his children. -- She is the tonic the family needs to soothe them from the loss of their wife and mother, and they are transformed before our eyes.

But things are complicated by the intrusion of the Nazis whose sense of German nationalism led them to annex Austria in what is known as the Anschluss. The insidious presence of Nazi uniforms and insignia grows by degrees as the play progresses [one unexpected image toward the end drew audible gasps from the audience], and several characters in The Sound of Music walk the thin line between acceptance and rejection of a regime that appears benign but turns malignant. -- Friend and concert organizer Max Detweiller [Kevin Ligon] tries to ingratiate himself with the powers in Berlin and argues that Nazi rule is inevitable; and Captain Von Trapp's elegant fiancee Elsa Schraeder [Sandra DeNise] is afraid of the consequences of going against the Nazis, so she gives up on their marriage. Even Von Trapp's eldest daughter Liesl [AnnEliza Canning-Skinner] gets a rude awakening when her boyfriend Rolf [Cameron Edris] joins the ranks of the Nazi guard.

Make no mistake, it is the music that is the center of this production. In the hands of pianists Michael Rice and Joel Jones, the score of The Sound of Music is precise, colorful, and dramatic; there is no need for a full orchestra here.

Mr. Dildine brings many new faces to the Festival stage, whose professional credits are impressive; their combined talents carry us through the two acts, balancing credible characterizations and storytelling with impressive singing voices. Ms. Arvia's rendition of "Climb Every Mountain" brings Act I to a powerful conclusion; Ms. Canning-Skinner and Mr. Edris are pleasantly adolescent in "Sixteen Going on Seventeen", Joy Lynn Jacobs as Sister Margaretta produces the most striking voice in the Chorus of nuns, and Mr. Brady's "Edelweiss" is delivered as a heartfelt anthem to his Austrian patriotism.

Yet, much of the play's focus is on Maria and her impact on the family. Ms. Bassett is so likable as a young novice nun who is still attracted to the world around her, and she stands up to the regimented life that Mr. Brady's Captain imposes on his household, played here by two separate casts of local children. What all of them need is love, and Ms. Bassett is the perfect means to that end. The children respond to her gentle manner that changes them all. -- "My Favorite Things" breaks the ice, and is followed by rousing versions of "Do-Re-Mi" and "The Lonely Goatherd", and the children's own singing of "So Long, Farewell". -- Ms. Bassett's charming demeanor and fine lyric soprano captivate the audience at every turn.

Jeffrey Toddhunter's period and character driven costumes (and there are several quick costume changes) enhance John Coyne's inventive set pieces: a series of huge French doors and a "rolling floor", along with judicious use of items that fly in to depict specific locations, and allow the action to flow seamlessly from scene to scene.

Two and a half hours go be quickly as Mr. Dildine's production is kept at a pace that keeps us engaged in every moment, in admiration of the Rodgers and Hammerstein score, the ample talents of the acting ensemble, and the provocative book by Howard Lindsay and Russell Crouse that draws attention to mankind's ability to courageously hold on to principles in the face of losing everything.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Theatre AUM: "Child's Play"

In Kevin D. Ferguson's powerful and provocative Child's Play at Theatre AUM, young Cindy Stillman [Piper Mann alternates with Sophia Kessler] has stopped talking. The reason is a mystery, but as in real life any drastic change of behavior is often the result of some traumatic event, Cindy is sent to therapist Vera Heigl [Amy May] to discover the cause and help her to "find her voice". Suspicions of abuse [a topic that is too often reported in the news] arise quickly; and as the perpetrators are likely to be authority figures or family members the victim trusts, Vera must secure Cindy's confidence in her in order to accomplish her goal. -- As a kind of TED Talk narrator of the drama, Vera too needs to find her own voice, as she is suffering from burn-out, and is helped along the way by her colleague Roger [Tony George], whose romantic inclinations she resists at first.

Director Neil David Seibel continues Theatre AUM's relationship with the Playwright's Lab at Hollins University in Virginia that incubates new plays via its MFA program and where award winning playwright Ferguson is the resident dramaturg.

Mr. Seibel guides his mostly veteran ensemble actors through the contrasting naturalistic and fantasy episodes of this two-act drama; and with an inventive student design team [set and props: Olivia Tippett, costumes: Kate Saylor, lighting: Emily Aveldanez, sound: Marcus Godbee, make-up: Olivia Crutchfield] keeps audiences engaged in Cindy's suspenseful journey.

Ms. May plays Vera as a compassionate therapist whose refrain "In this part of our time together, you can do almost anything" gently secures Cindy's trust, and Ms. Mann engages in "play therapy" -- drawings that audiences see as projections, and sandbox toys that come to life -- showing her nightmares that give progressive clues to the events that triggered her silence.

These dreams particularly shed light on Cindy and her family's dynamics: when a Dragon [Sam Penn] threatens and almost shatters the idyllic fairy-tale life of the Princess [Faith Roberts], the King [Ryan Gerrells], and the Queen [Olivia Crutchfield], and a Ninja Girl [Kate Saylor] attempts to rescue the Princess, we can't help but notice the correlation as Cindy is projecting her own family in her nightmares.

Her compassionate and loving stepfather Peter [Kodi Robertson in a sensitive and understated performance] and her perfection-driven mother Julia [Brittany Vallely] both want things to go back to normal, but their own relationship is fraught with divergent versions of the truth.

Fear, secrecy, and safety with the loved ones who ought to be trusted are gradually revealed to be the crux of Cindy's affliction that bring the play to its shattering climax. -- Mr. Seibel and his company address the subject of child abuse with a sensitivity and honesty that are to be commended. And Theatre AUM sheds light on a topic that encourages audiences to address uncomfortable matters that are unfortunately too much in evidence in our own community.