Lawrence Toppman

‘The Sound of Music’ has never rung so profoundly

Max (Merwin Foard) wonders whether the glamorous Elsa (Teri Hansen) will capture the affections of Captain von Trapp (Ben Davis) in “The Sound of Music.”
Max (Merwin Foard) wonders whether the glamorous Elsa (Teri Hansen) will capture the affections of Captain von Trapp (Ben Davis) in “The Sound of Music.” Matthew Murphy

Every review of the national tour of “The Sound of Music” (this one included) notes that the production dusts off some traditions and discards others, giving us a clearer view of its creators’ intentions. What emerges is a version like no other I’ve seen and the first about which I cared deeply.

Why should this be?

First, director Jack O’Brien reveals Act One to be a series of searches for self. Did Maria enter the abbey to hide from the world or find God? Can dignified Captain von Trapp, a naval hero who fought for Germany in World War I, serve honorably (and silently) if Hitler overruns Austria? What can eldest daughter Liesl expect of love? How will Rolf, her suitor, behave if pressed into Nazi service?

Only the eloquent Mother Abbess, opportunistic impresario Max Detweiler and comfort-loving millionaire Elsa Schraeder know what they want, however noble or base it may be.

O’Brien then turns Act Two into a thriller, with the Nazi presence growing from armbands to five immense banners hanging at the folk festival where the von Trapps sing as a family for the first time. History unites them in a way love couldn’t yet completely do.

Second, characters sing as if they wanted to communicate, not bowl us over with anthems or make us smile nostalgically.

Lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II was dying as he wrote this; he passed away nine months after the Broadway premiere in 1959. For the first time in his 16-year partnership with composer Richard Rodgers, he didn’t write the book – Howard Lindsey and Russel Crouse did that – and he poured a lifetime of feelings about hope and faith into his last project.

The Abbess (Ashley Brown, youthful and expressive) begins “Climb Every Mountain” as if giving advice to Maria. The Captain (Ben Davis, believable whether gruff or kindly) sings “Edelweiss” delicately, as if contemplating the words about his homeland for the first time. Maria appears to invent “Do-Re-Mi,” apologetically shrugging because she can’t think of a line more clever than “La, a note to follow So.”

Third, body language tells a story. See how Maria flaps around self-effacingly in Act One, trying to please everyone: the kids, the Captain, the Abbess, the Lord. She has no idea who she is, except when she’s alone with her beloved hills; only there does she relax. (Kerstin Anderson gives a star-making performance.) By the end of the show, she’s spiritually and physically calm.

Fourth, there are no villains except Nazis. Droll Max is morally elusive yet likable in the hands of Merwin Foard. Teri Hansen’s Elsa doesn’t deserve the Captain, but she’s mismatched rather than malevolent: She belongs in a Viennese café, not a village parlor, so she bows out gracefully.

The list could go on, from the endearing but never cloying children – Paige Silvester exactly captures Liesl’s balance between immaturity and maturity – to the fine, full pit orchestra of 17 pieces, led by Jay Alger. He sets firm, swift tempos that never rush singers or diminish emotional effects.

Rumor has it the tour may end on Broadway, where R&H masterpieces “Oklahoma,” “Carousel,” “The King and I” and “South Pacific” have been rethought over the last 20 years. It’s time for “The Sound of Music” to join them.

Toppman: 704-358-5232

‘The Sound of Music’

When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 1:30 and 7 p.m. Sunday.

Where: Belk Theater, 130 N. Tryon St.

Running time: 155 minutes with one intermission.

Tickets: $29.50-$119.50.

Details: 704-372-1000 or blumenthalarts.org.

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