From Maria giddily breaking out her higher vocal register to the sinister Herr Zeller ordering Captain von Trapp to "Sing!," this is one "Sound of Music" that takes the show's title seriously.
This new rendition of the beloved Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, making its Connecticut debut at the Waterbury Palace through March 12, is one of those tours that wasn't actually on Broadway before it went on the road, but feels like it.
It's helmed by a certified Tony-winning Broadway director Jack O'Brien ("Hairspray," "Catch Me If You Can"), and boasts some accomplished New York talent: Ben Davis (Baz Luhrmann's "La Boheme," "Les Mis") as Captain von Trapp; opera/theater star Teri Hansen as his fiancee Elsa Shraeder; and Merwin Foard (another "Les Mis" vet, and a stalwart standby or understudy for a slew of Broadway shows, including "Aladdin") as the professional friend-of-the-wealthy Max Detweiler.
But "The Sound of Music" is also a vehicle for fresh faces — especially those seven adorable von Trapp children, from stubborn 16-going-on-17-year-old Liesl (Paige Sylvester) to tiny Gretl (Anika Lore Hatch), who gets toted across the stage like she's the littlest orphan in "Annie." There's a grinning, bright-faced "Brady Bunch" energy to these tots; you half expect them to break into "It's a Sunshine Day" instead of "Do-Re-Mi" or "So Long, Farewell."
Freshest of them all is Charlotte Maltby, a gangly youthful joy as Maria, the would-be nun who finds her calling — and true love — as the nanny of the von Trapp Family, a serious and mopey brood that she turns into a frisky group of harmony-singers who have social skills and psychological insights that put any of those Austrian adults to shame. Maltby has an empowered-woman sitcom quality (think "That Girl" or "New Girl") and lives up to the lyric "underneath her wimple she has curlers in her hair."
There's a lot of effort spent in making this sweet-aired mountain of a musical seem vaguely contemporary and not at all corny. The backdrops are colorful watercolor-style paintings. The show takes place in Austria just as it's being overrun by Nazis, and this production tries to subtly make more general points about fighting oppression in any form.
But there's no getting around all the old-school musical traditions that make "The Sound of Music" what it is. The vocals shift from singalongs to soaring soprano solos to sacred choral music. Melody Betts as the Mother Abbess puts a gospel spin on "Climb Every Mountain" but also respects the original tune and its heavenly high notes. (Betts faced the sort of challenge the song is about on opening night, when her microphone failed while she was singing the first verse; moving in close to Maltby's body mic got her through it.)
The show is formatted like a lot of Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals: a cheery song about distracting yourself from life's worries ("My Favorite Things"), a fraught meeting between two strong individuals who will soon fall in love, a crisis that affects a whole community and a suspenseful finish. Robert Wise's 1965 movie version did a lot to undo this predictable melodrama by switching songs and scenes around. Working within its original shape, O'Brien and the cast instead use bright colors, dramatic pauses and other theatrical tools to dust away the cliches. In that respect, it's much more successful than the last major "Sound of Music" tour that played the state, starring Marie Osmond in 1995.
You can't call it modern, but this "Sound of Music" takes a show that was written in the late 1950s (and feels like a decade or two earlier) and takes it into the generation-gap, protest-movement territory of the late 1960s. The hills seem alive again.
"THE SOUND OF MUSIC" plays through March 12 at the Palace Theatre, 100 E. Main St., Waterbury. Performances are Tuesday through Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 1 and 6:30 p.m. Tickets are $64.50-$94.50. palacetheaterct.org/