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The Sound of Music

by on 11 October 2019

Dream the Impossible

The Sound of Music

by Richard Rodgers, lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II

Hinchley Manor Operatic Society at Epsom Playhouse until 12th October

Review by Mark Aspen

Love or money, freedom or fame, pragmatism or honour: these are the dilemmas facing Georg von Trapp, an aristocratic Austrian, and his family during the Anschluß, the annexation of Austria to the Germany of the Third Reich in 1938. Heavy considerations for heavy times, but Rodgers and Hammerstein’s much-loved musical, The Sound of Music treats these subjects with a simplicity that has delicacy and charm. HMOS’s engaging production picks up the light approach and runs with it.

The Sound of Music is based very loosely on the real von Trapp family whose adventures were recorded by the wife Maria in her memoires. Several books were written based on her published memoires, which in 1958 were made into a German film, Die Trapp-Familie. This was Rodgers and Hammerstein’s source material, the basis of which had gone through a string of Chinese whispers. Personally having driven on mountain roads between Salzburg and Switzerland, on both the north and south sides of the Germany-Austria border, I know that it is over 250 miles of very demanding driving. I would not want to walk it over the Alps, even in peacetime let alone to escape the Nazis, and with seven young children in tow. (The real von Trapp took ten children on a train to Italy.) Oh, and the direct route goes straight through Hitler’s “Eagle’s Nest”. But let us not let facts get in the way of a good story.

HMOS certainly tells a good story well. Director, John Harris-Rees heads a co-ordinated company who clearly enjoy working together with a large crew and a cast that includes two teams of young actors playing the von Trapp children. On the press night this was Team Whiskers, but I have no doubt that Team Raindrops are equally well drilled.

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Can the have been a musical with so many of its songs becoming standards as The Sound of Music ? … and all very memorable and very sing-able. HMOS’s band of three string players and three woodwind, plus keyboard played by its musical director Brian D Steel, created the lively, adept and nimble sound that propelled the action on stage. Occasionally however, the band’s enthusiasm did tend to overwhelm the children’s voices.

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The nuns of Salzburg’s Nonnberg Abbey form the stable foundation on which the plot is built and act as a chorus throughout the musical. Sixteen in number, they make a very impressive opening to the show, and a parenthesising finale. The gravitas of their choral singing, mostly in Latin, makes a very nice foil to the lightness of the well-known songs of the lay characters. In particular, the rich mezzo of Yvonne Bracken-Kemish, a soft and subtly coloured voice as Mother Abbess, is a case in point. Equally pleasing, the clear simple soprano of Ruth Fogg, as Maria the principal character, has a bright alpine ring that sets a narrative contrast. We first see Maria as a postulant, a candidate hoping to gain admission into the nunnery as a novice. Sister Berthe, the MisSoundMusic3tress of Novices (Shannon Hearn) and Sister Margaretta, the Mistress of Postulants (Caroline Green) debate the suitability of Maria to join their ranks. The third named nun, Sister Sophia, (Catherine Quinn) joins them to ask How Do You Solve a Problem like Maria? They with Mother Abbess are unsettled by Maria, wondering if she is too frisky and frivolous when she should be demure and decorous as a would-be nun.

You see, Maria’s “problem” is a penchant for singing, which is infectious. Soon she even has the sombre Mother Abbess singing along with My Favourite Things. Ruth Fogg’s Maria is spirited, irrepressible and utterly charming. When Maria is seconded from the Abbey as temporary governess to the childSoundMusic2ren of Captain von Trapp, she quickly charms then into finding their natural love of singing too. The von Trapp children’s natural liveliness has been repressed by their stern father, whose idea of exercise is marching drill. A now redundant naval officer, von Trapp instils discipline by means of the signals of a boatswain’s whistle. This control extends equally to his servants, the stoically pragmatic butler Franz, played with phlegmatic hauteur by Peter O’Donovan and the slightly more questioning housekeeper Frau Schmidt, a bustling anxious portrayal by Kay Coulson.

The younger children, Friedrich (Sol French), Louisa (Charlotte Harris), Brigitta (Milla Hawkins), Kurt (Daniel Lumley), Marta (Annastasiya Lysyshyn) and Gretl (Megan Hill) are a superb ensemble with great confidence. (Of course as always it is the youngest, seven-year old Megan Hill, who steals the heart of the audience.) They are kept in order by big sister Liesl, played by Maia Phillips. With Maria, they form a prefect octave. Doh-Re-Mi fairly bounces along.

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Liesl is a teenager who is about to discover love … and be disillusioned by it. The local post-boy, Rolf has fallen for her. He finds every opportunity to deliver letters and telegrams to the house in person. Young love blooms, but later Rolf espouses the Nazi cause, which becomes of greater importance to him. Maia Phillips makes an enchanting Liesl von Trapp, with a lovely bright singing voice. Samuel Quick convincingly depicts Rolf’s journey from awkward but genuine boy-next-door to a strutting embryonic Nazi. Their duet, Sixteen, Going on Seventeen is a sweet picture of burgeoning love and trust (misplaced as it turns out).

The Liesl-Rolf sub-plot echoes the love story of Maria and Captain von Trapp, but whereas the young couple’s budding love blows before it fully blossoms, the older couple’s swelling love ripens and matures. Maria is by nature a loving but lonely person, and widower von Trapp has locked his feelings up in his heart. Their feelings for each other unfold when they allow themselves to open up. Chris Gibbs accurately portrays the steely buttoned-up von Trapp with a suave elegance, underlined by a singing voice with a hint of huskiness. The first clear indication of their growing mutual affection is when they dance together, ostensibly to teach Kurt the society adaptation of the Ländler folk dance. Kelly Neilson choreographs a very well-executed version for the pair, acting in this light-bulb moment.

SoundMusic8Maria is almost pipped at the post to be Frau von Trapp by Baroness Elsa Schräder, a wealthy socialite and long-standing friend of van Trapp, but who wants more to consolidate their estates than their hearts. Kay Rose plays the part of Elsa as a suitably condescending and conceited man-eater. Elsa believes that “only poor people have the time for great romances” and wonders what is holding von Trapp back. How Can Love Survive, she sings with von Trapp and Max Detweiler, a mutual friend who is a music impresario. Then they move on to talking politics. Elsa is enthusiastic about prosperity under the Third Reich, Max is ambivalent, von Trapp is vehemently against, as a nationalist who values freedom. (It is interesting how in eighty years the “A” word in Austria has become the “B” word in Britain!) They sing a trio, No Way to Stop It. However, the schism is too great and Eliza and von Trapp’s relationship and engagement come to an abrupt end. Zak Negri plays the conflicted Max as a man ill-at-ease with himself, one moment fondly singing The Lonely Goatherd with the children, the next taking furtive phone calls from Berlin to arrange high profile concerts.

The von Trapp estate that Elsa was hoping to get her hands on is cleverly reproduced in HMOS’s set, designed by Scenic Projects and enhanced by Richard Pike’s lighting and Stuart Vaughan’s sound. By means of changes to various flats, the mansion’s interior becomes its exterior or grounds, trees drop in from the fly floor, or the Abbey interior puts in a swift appearance. First night anxiety meant that some of the changes were not as slick as they might be later in the run, and this reflected a somewhat reduced pacing from the cast, which nevertheless picked up as confidence grew.

Indeed, the plot becomes increasing urgent as its denouement approaches, with the wedding in the Abbey (presided over by the bishop no less), the coercive arrival of the Nazi officials and the concert from which the whole von Trapp family escapes. Some minor characters only put in an appearance right at the end. The German Admiral von Schreiber (neatly underplayed by Sid Dolbear) arrives in person to enlist the well-regarded Captain von Trapp with a commission in his navy, while the Herr Zeller, a close neighbour now turned zealous Gauleiter, is affronted by the Admiral’s pliant nature in allowing a stay while the concert takes place. Joe Martin plays a suitably slimy Zeller with gusto.

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At the concert we see the line of the von Trapp family singers, hands cupped across each other in a stiff recital style whilst they sing the ironic line from Doh-Re-Mi, “far, a long, long way to run”, before doing just that. Then von Trapp defiantly sings of the Austrian alpine flower Edelweiß. While Max stalls at the prize-giving, in the distance, across the backdrop, we see the family making their way through a narrow alpine pass.

The audience can now cheer and make its way home trying not to hum those eminently memorable songs. We feel a warm glow, as love, freedom and honour have won through.

Mark Aspen
October 2019

Photography by Shannon Hearn.

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