Sunday, January 23, 2011

Theater roundup 1: 'Sound of Music' without syrup; a rethought 'Les Miz'

Catherine Walker in The Sound of Music.

By Hap Erstein

There must be some theatergoers who have never seen Rodgers‭ ‬and Hammerstein’s‭ ‬The Sound of Music,‭ ‬but not many.‭ ‬Performed perpetually by high schools and community troupes,‭ ‬it would be hard to miss,‭ ‬and then there’s that syrupy,‭ ‬Oscar-winning move version that keeps showing up on cable TV.

Director-choreographer Marc Robin gave himself quite a challenge when he approached the buoyant musical tale of spunky convent postulant Maria Rainer,‭ ‬assigned as governess to the seven children of grumpy Austrian naval Capt.‭ ‬Georg von Trapp.‭ ‬He wanted to have us see the story with new eyes,‭ ‬emphasizing the dramatic journey instead of the encrusted sugar.‭ ‬And without sacrificing any of the show’s natural sunniness,‭ ‬that is exactly what he has done.

A co-production between the Maltz and Lancaster,‭ ‬Pa.‭’‬s,‭ ‬Fulton Theatre‭ ‬--‭ ‬where Robin is artistic director‭ ‬--‭ ‬nothing appears to have been stinted on.‭ ‬The cast of‭ ‬30‭ ‬is the largest ever on the Jupiter company’s stage and scenic designer Michael Schweikardt fills it further with an array of attractive sets that arrive and recede rapidly as the show’s transitions require.

Still,‭ ‬the show rests largely on the shoulders of the woman playing Maria,‭ ‬and the Maltz is on firm ground with the exceptional Catherine Walker,‭ ‬a Broadway veteran of that other governess role‭ ‬--‭ ‬Mary Poppins.‭ ‬From our first glimpse of her as she lifts her voice in the Austrian hills to sing the soaring title tune,‭ ‬we sense this will be a‭ ‬Sound of Music‭ ‬beyond the ordinary.

And the evidence just keeps coming.‭ ‬Michael Sharon’s Captain von Trapp is somewhat stiff early on,‭ ‬but he grows in the role as he comes under Maria’s charms.‭ ‬The locally cast Von Trapp kids avoid leaving us with a saccharine aftertaste and full-throated April Woodall’s Mother Abbess establishes a stronger bond than usual with her radiant charge,‭ ‬Maria.

Robin makes sure we get our money’s worth on the score,‭ ‬retaining two acerbic numbers that are often jettisoned‭ ‬--‭ ‬How Can Love Survive‭? ‬and‭ ‬No Way‭ ‬to Stop It‭ ‬--‭ ‬and adding two songs written for the movie‭ ‬--‭ ‬I Have Confidence and‭ ‬Something Good.‭ ‬The downside of this is that the show runs just under three hours,‭ ‬probably overlong for many youngsters.

In recent years on Broadway,‭ ‬productions of‭ ‬Carousel and‭ ‬South Pacific have uncovered dramatic values in them that had been buried.‭ ‬It would be overstating the case to say that Robin does the same for The Sound of Music,‭ ‬but he has chipped away at the sweetness and mined the drama that was always underneath.

THE SOUND OF MUSIC,‭ ‬Maltz Jupiter Theatre,‭ ‬1001‭ ‬E.‭ ‬Indiantown Road,‭ ‬Jupiter.‭ ‬Through Sunday,‭ ‬Jan.‭ ‬30.‭ ‬Tickets:‭ ‬$43-$60.‭ ‬Call:‭ (‬561‭) ‬575-2223‭ ‬or‭ (‬800‭) ‬445-1666.

‭ * * *

Lawrence Clayton in Les Miserables.

It has been‭ ‬25‭ ‬years since the majestic musical epic‭ ‬Les Miserables arrived in the United States from England.‭ ‬And while it feels like it has never been out of sight for long,‭ ‬its silver anniversary seems reason enough for a new production of this acme of the so-called‭ “‬British mega-musical movement‭” ‬of the‭ ‬1980s.

In the intervening years,‭ ‬touring editions of‭ ‬Les Miz have whittled away at the show’s running time and physical production.‭ ‬While that makes prudent economic sense,‭ ‬those subsequent road shows have all been compromises,‭ ‬just like reconceived versions of‭ ‬Sweeney Todd,‭ ‬Miss Saigon and every other oversized theater event built for traveling.

Instead of cutting corners,‭ ‬the anniversary production of Les Miz that is playing its only South Florida engagement at‭ ‬Fort Lauderdale’s Broward Center has taken the high road of a complete new staging and design.‭ ‬It is a bold move that is not always effective,‭ ‬but is arguably better than recent moth-eaten tours to which we have been subjected.

Gone is the brilliant turntable direction of Trevor Nunn and John Caird and gone are the gargantuan mobile barricades by John Napier.‭ ‬Both are missed,‭ ‬and probably this current production is best enjoyed by those who have never experienced‭ ‬Les Miserables before.‭ ‬Still,‭ ‬for those who agree that this is one of the great musicals of the past quarter century,‭ ‬the new ideas contributed by co-directors Laurence Connor and James Powell and set designer Matt Kinley are enough to hold our interest.

The show,‭ ‬which compresses‭ ‬1,200‭ ‬pages of Victor Hugo’s classic French novel into three hours‭’ ‬running time,‭ ‬is amazing for what it manages to include.‭ ‬It is,‭ ‬of course,‭ ‬the personal story of Jean Valjean,‭ ‬a petty-thief-turned-prosperous-mayor,‭ ‬and the romance of his adopted daughter Cosette,‭ ‬set against the student rebellions that led to bloodshed.‭ ‬Helping the narrative move along was the original centrifugal staging,‭ ‬replaced by a more prosaic approach that shows some of the script’s seams.

But occasionally,‭ ‬as in Valjean’s escape through the sewers of Paris,‭ ‬the charcoal sketch backdrops said to be based on sketches by Hugo‭ ‬--‭ ‬Don’t quit your day job,‭ ‬Victor‭ ‬--‭ ‬become animated and are a worthy cinematic substitute for the turntable.‭ ‬It is a good concept that could have been used more often.

The full-voiced cast is stronger than most touring companies,‭ ‬led by Lawrence Clayton,‭ ‬the first African-American to take on the role.‭ ‬The part is grueling in its demands and Clayton is more than up to the task,‭ ‬as his upper-octave,‭ ‬celestial‭ ‬Bring Him Home certainly attests.‭ ‬Also a standout is Andrew Varela as his nemesis Javert,‭ ‬as well as Betsy Morgan‭ (‬Fantine‭)‬,‭ ‬who delivers her gymnastic aria early on and is not seen again for‭ ‬more than two hours.

Perhaps‭ ‬25‭ ‬years from now,‭ ‬Les Miserables will be celebrated again by reconstituting the original production.‭ ‬Until then,‭ ‬this take demonstrates how resilient the material is and how affecting this score continues to be.

LES MISERABLES,‭ ‬Broward Center,‭ ‬201‭ ‬S.W.‭ ‬5th Ave.,‭ ‬Fort Lauderdale.‭ ‬Continuing through Sun.,‭ ‬Jan.‭ ‬30.‭ ‬Tickets:‭ ‬$25-$69.‭ ‬Call:‭ (‬954‭) ‬462-0222.

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