For its big annual summer musical, Foothill Music Theatre has chosen one of the biggest this year, in terms of familiarity and place in the Broadway pantheon: Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II's "The Sound of Music." With its heartfelt production, the community theater group helps reinforce why the show has remained a favorite since it was first staged in 1959.
It's based on the true story of the von Trapp family, who fled Austria after its merger with Nazi Germany in 1938 and immigrated to the United States, where they worked as a touring choral group, the Von Trapp Family Singers (and eventually opened an alpine-style resort in Vermont). "The Sound of Music," loosely based on matriarch Maria von Trapp's memoirs, dramatizes the meeting of spritely, music-loving nun-in-training Maria, widowed navy captain Georg and his seven children, for whom Maria works as a governess. Georg and Maria butt heads and then fall in love, and the family learns to sing madrigals together. In the meantime, Austria is on the precipice of coming under Nazi German control, something the von Trapps are unwilling to become a part of.
The show was the final collaboration between Broadway legends Rodgers and Hammerstein, and probably their most popular, thanks to both the wholesome story and especially the immortal songs: "My Favorite Things," the solfege musical training guide "Do-Re-Mi," the titular number and so many others. Admit it; you're humming them now. Some may scorn it as corny or overrated; I am not one of those people. Notice how, while the melody of "My Favorite Things" remains constant, the chords underneath switch from minor to major as the verses progress. Hear how the climactic "Climb Ev'ry Mountain" ascends, as befitting its lyrics. Much of the music is written in homage to the waltzes and folk music of Austria (including the yodeling "Lonely Goatherd") while other bits are meant to echo the type of complex choral arrangements sung by the real von Trapps. Best of all is the simple "Edelweiss," a tribute to his beloved homeland that the captain sings as he is preparing to leave it, and which sounds so convincing it's hard to believe it was not already an Austrian folk song. It's a poignant farewell, extra so because it may have been Rodgers and Hammerstein's final collaboration. If done right, there shouldn't be a dry eye in the house.
Foothill's production (directed by Milissa Carey with musical direction by William Liberatore) sticks mostly with the original Broadway structure, rather than the iconic 1965 film version (although I think the film works better, song-order-wise), including two songs that were cut from the movie ("How Can Love Survive?" and "No Way To Stop It"), plus the two that Rodgers wrote for the film ("I Have Confidence" and "Something Good").
To follow in the footsteps of Mary Martin (Broadway) and then Julie Andrews (film) is not easy, but Foothill made a brilliant choice with Jillian Bader, who boasts a pure, beautiful singing voice and the perky persona to go with it as Maria. Scott Solomon, as Captain von Trapp, struggles as a singer, meaning, alas, that "Edelweiss" is less successful than it should be. Similarly, Ryan Rathbun is out of his league, vocally, as the teen suitor turned eager new Nazi recruit Rolf. Madison Colgate, who plays Rolf's paramour and eldest von Trapp daughter Liesl, is excellent. So too are Aaron Hurley as the shifty music promoter family friend Max Detweiler and Elizabeth Claire Lawrence as the captain's glamorous, wealthy, pre-Maria love interest, who proves too agreeable to getting along with the Third Reich for von Trapp's taste. Rachel Michelberg proves up to the operatic role of Maria's mentor, the Mother Abbess, and I was especially impressed by the beautiful harmonized singing of the nun ensemble, who do a marvelous job with their classical church-choir-style pieces. The young von Trapp children (double cast) are charming, including the three Hutton siblings (Grace, Billy and Mary, who play Louisa, Kurt and Gretl) who share the stage with their mother, Leandra Saenz, playing Sister Sophia. Fitting, for such a family-centric show.
The costumes, by Mae Matos and Lisa Rozman, look great, as does the alpine backdrop by Kuo-Hao Lo, although the staircase draped in green blankets to stand-in as a mountain looks a bit sketchy.
The audience at the matinee I attended was full of enthusiastic children, and Foothill's production makes a great introduction to this old-fashioned but beloved musical. Solfege and family and moral resistance are, judging by the standing ovation, still a few of our favorite things.
What: "The Sound of Music."
Where: Smithwick Theatre, Foothill College, 12345 El Monte Road, Los Altos Hills.
When: Through Aug. 5; see online for detailed schedule.
Info: Go to FMT.