Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Sound of Music (Applefest edition)

This is one of those exclusive-to-the-blog posts, because I try to avoid using my newspaper space for plugging projects in which I have a personal connection, but I have no such qualms about indulging myself in front of the somewhat smaller blog audience.

I'm directing the Franklin Civic Operetta Association production of Sound of Music. It is not a show I'm naturally drawn to. It's a show that has become associated with sweetness on the order of a pancake covered with triple-berry syrup under a quart of ice cream soaked in chocolate good with a pound of sugar sprinkled directly on top. It would be an easy show to do without really thinking about what you're doing.

At the same time, underneath all of that, there's a fairly affecting story. Maria is a young woman, orphaned, and when we meet her, hiding from life in an abbey and about to lose that last refuge. Captain von Trapp has been adrift for years, still identified as a navy captain in a country that lost its navy two decades ago. They are a pair of characters who are trying not to face their own lives, but for whom circumstances no longer that luxury.

There is, I think, a natural tendency to want to oversell the story. In theater, as in life, that strikes me as a mistake, revealing a lack of faith in the audience to understand or appreciate the struggles played out before them. It is easy to make Maria so plucky that one can never imagine her defeat, her opposition (both nuns and nazis) so cartoonish that we don't ever feel a plausible threat. At the same time, the Captain's fiancee can be played as so extreme that we see her as a wicked woman and not a plausible choice for him. Max in particular requires a balance of charm and amoral pragmatism.

Like most of Rodgers and Hammerstein's best stuff (though they did not write the book for this), SOM includes some heavy themes without reducing them to simple two-dimensional conflicts (or allowing them to suck the show into a philosophical symposium set to music). How do you balance devotion to God with the need to get a life? How do you find your way back from a life that doesn't really fit you? How do you make difficult choices in dangerous times, and how far can political and personal compromise go?

Likewise, this score of standards is like the pledge of allegiance-- so often heard that it's rarely listened to. Robert Russell Bennett's orchestrations are genius, supportive without trying exaggerate or inflate the songs. "Climb Every Mountain" does not have to be a painful piece of bombast being beaten into submission by some over-ambitious soprano, and "Do Re Mi" does not have to be treacle.

If you only know the movie, the stage version offers other treats. Max and Elsa have two songs, one a brutally cheerful piece of pep about the necessity of compromising
with whatever horrid events the world may bring. The Captain's journey is far more fleshed out than in the movie, and Maria has the chance to be a real multi-dimensional character. The song that "Must Have Done Something" good replaced for the movie is a nice little piece indeed, rarely heard (our joke has been that somebody let Little Stevie Sondheim come out of the apprentice's room in the back to write it). And what music director Steve Luxbacher has done with the kids and the nuns is awesome.

Did we manage to pull all that off? I don't know-- I direct a show for six weeks and I undoubtedly lose a little bit of objectivity. I have never worked with a larger cast, and everybody has worked hard and done double and triple duty. This set features one of the most challenging and nerve-wracking mechanical gimmicks I've ever used (I loves me the unit set)-- think two giant 17-foot lazy susans-- but thanks to Ed Ramage and the stagehands, it works and keeps the show moving briskly. I was over-lucky in casting-- virtually every supporting actor in this show has, at one time or another, carried another show as lead. And in good community theater tradition, we have veterans and newbies, old and young-- and the young come from every school system in the county, plus home schoolers.

I aimed to mount a version of Sound of Music that would be pleasing to fans of the show, but which would also be enjoyable for people who have a visceral dread of R&H. I aimed to let the light and happy parts breathe and the dark moments be as dark as they could be, and all of it to play without pummeling the audience about the head and shoulders. Our crowds last weekend responded enthusiastically.

I am really proud of these folks, including the von Trapp children, who have worked hard, sing well, and act just like real siblings. The players are turning in some of their best work ever, and the nuns are, for many folks, a real revelation. The number of hands working behind the scenes is awesome. I wanted to really show people something and not just do one more paint-by-numbers version of this stage standard. Ultimately the audiences will have to judge how well we have succeeded; I'm confident that we won't be wasting their time.

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