Elena Shaddow so owns the role of Maria in The Sound of Music that I never once thought of Julie Andrews while enjoying Paper Mill Playhouse’s opulently traditional revival of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic. In the musical, set near Salzburg, Austria just before World War II, a postulant nun, Maria Rainer, is sent by her Mother Abbess to be the governess to the seven children of widower Captain Georg von Trapp. She teaches them the basics of music, starting a path that will lead them to becoming the world-famous Trapp Family Singers.
Shaddow plays Maria as much more of a nun than Andrews did, making the story of her falling in love with the children (and not incidentally the Captain) all the more poignant. Ben Davis is just as terrific as the Captain, splendidly conveying the loneliness and romanticism that bubble just beneath his stern exterior. Davis also excels at conveying the Captain’s deep patriotism as Austria faces a forced unification with Nazi Germany. The way Davis sings “Edelweiss”, there is no doubt that the Captain sings this paean to the Alpine flower as a deeply felt gesture of defiance.
The biggest star in this production, Frasier‘s Edward Hibbert, turns the opportunistic Max Detweiler into a charming Austrian version of Noël Coward. In general director and choreographer James Brennan has paid scrupulous attention to the way in which Rodgers and Hammerstein simply – and therefore powerfully – underlined the importance of music in nourishing the human soul.
James Fouchard’s set design is also a noteworthy achievement; at once lush and simple, it cannily marries realistic details with operatic, non-realistic frames. This is a more than successful revival, that not only communicates what’s wonderful about this show, but also vividly expresses its ongoing importance.
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