Chet Greason, firstname.lastname@example.org
Confession time: I used to be one of those people who said they hated The Sound of Music. It was one of my sister’s favourite movies and I felt it was the duty of little brothers everywhere to declare their hatred for all things sisterly.
As I aged, it turned into a sneering derision for something deemed too sentimental and syrupy for a brooding college student listening to Tom Waits.
However, things change. I now realize, after seeing the Stratford Festival’s production of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic, that a person has to be an especially rotten curmudgeon to hate something so joyful.
I’ve also since changed my mind about Dirty Dancing. Teenage boys can be awful people sometimes, can’t they?
It would seem the brass at the Stratford Festival acknowledge the show's somewhat mushy reputation, as they've included a full-on defense of sentiment by UWO professor and author Darren C. Marks in the program. To be sure, there are moments in Sound of Music, especially in the first act, where it borders on the dangerously saccharine; as if one risks diabetes just by watching it.
However, just as it starts seeming too sweet to stomach, Rodgers and Hammerstein introduce the least sweetest things on the planet: Nazis! The sudden switch from jubilance to jackboots makes the formerly chipper affair distinctly ominous.
This dark turn is amplified in the stage production. As a friend, Denise Wreford, observed in a conversation following the show, the live audience is incorporated into the show as Nazis themselves.
During the musical competition segment late in the second act, a foursome of big-grinned, high-kicking men in lederhosen cavort in front of massive swastika banners. The audience wants to chuckle when the men start rhythmically spanking one another, but the swastikas are just too big, red, and taboo to make anyone truly comfortable.
Then Uncle Max comes out with a microphone, and addresses the live studio audience (that’s you) regarding the other performances they’re about to see in this Nazi talent show. The Nazi audience (you) clap along.
Dark stuff, considering scant minutes ago we were drowning out thunder by yodelling about lonely goatherds. However, the audience gets some redemption by also playing the part of the hills alive with music that the Von Trapps escape into.
While the hooky melodies, memorable lyrics, and uplifting story have all helped to make The Sound of Music such an enduring musical, it is the individual highlights that ensure that Donna Feore’s rendition here in Stratford will be one of this season’s biggest attractions.
Of course, there’s charming Stephanie Rothenberg as Maria and stoic Ben Carlson as Captain Von Trapp. These two deserve every encore bow that's demanded of them.
But there’s also Anita Krause as Mother Abbess, whose voice could be considered a deadly weapon should it fall into the wrong hands, delivering death by goosebumps to the populace at large.
There’s venomous Peter Hutt, who is pure malice as Nazi Herr Zeller.
Not to mention those aforementioned slap-happy Bavarians (Matt Alfano, Matthew Armet, Chad McFadden, and Jason Sermonia); charlatan Uncle Max, played decadently by Shane Carty; and the ensemble of singing nuns who, though they look like penguins, sound like angels.
And then there are the Von Trapp children, who steal every scene they’re in. Six-year-old Zoë Brown, as Gretl, shoulders just as much choreography as big brother and sister Friedrich and Louisa (played by Stratford students Sean Dolan and Effie Honeywell.)
The kids harmonize, cartwheel, tell jokes, and pull off complicated dance numbers; their professionalism and talent in no way hindered by their young ages. Calling them simply impressive is a disservice; extraordinary is more apt.
Corralling all of this talent into one fine-tuned feature must have been a tremendous undertaking for Donna Feore. Hats off to the Stratford Festival for taking a narrative that was already so many people’s favourite and finding a way to improve upon it.