Tuesday, 15 September 2015

The Sound Of Music

Image Source: Bill Kenwright Ltd
Written By: Mark Armstrong

Format: Musical
Genre: Drama
Date: September 14 2015
Location: Liverpool Empire Theatre

"The hills are alive with The Sound Of Music ..." Well, last night it was the Liverpool Empire that was very much alive as The Sound Of Music began its current run at the theatre, and it's safe to say that the audience approved of what was a superb musical.

As many will know, The Sound Of Music was one of the most famous films of the 20th century. Contrary to popular belief, the movie is actually an adaptation of the stage show; the original musical hit Broadway in 1959, and the big-screen version was released in 1965. Regardless, The Sound Of Music has become one of the most memorable productions ever produced, and several songs have become timeless classics over the last 50 years. Based on a true story of Maria Von Trapp (The Story Of The Von Trapp Singers), whether it is the show or the film, its strength has always been its soundtrack, and so achieving strong performances in that area is the goal of any Sound Of Music production. Fortunately, those expectations were met in Liverpool, as The Sound Of Music quite literally hit all the high notes.

The story begins in Salzburg, Austria where Maria Rainer (played by Danielle Hope) returns late to Nonnberg Abbey, having been singing on the surrounding hills and mountains, leaving the nuns to ponder how to handle the situation (or, to put it another way, how to solve the problem of Maria). It is decided that Maria should leave for a short time to work as a governess to the seven children of Georg Von Trapp (Steven Houghton), a widowed Austro-Hungarian Navy submarine captain, who is extremely strict and has everyone from his butler to his housekeeper to the kids themselves acting almost like military in following orders at the command of a whistle.

Maria is taken aback by this, and the idea that music is banned from the house. She teaches the children songs for the first time and, after initial resistance, forms a bond with each of them, finding a way to do so without the dictator-like Georg finding out. But he discovers one day that Maria has managed them with an alternative philosophy, and is very cross but after being advised by Maria as to why she has done so, and how he had previously neglected them, he soon realises that Maria's arrival and her musical influence on the children is actually the best thing that could have happened, partly influenced by the praise handed to the kids by visitors Elsa Schräder (Emma Clifford) and Max Detweiler (Howard Samuels).

A lavish evening party sees the entire family joining in the musical spirit, to the point where Georg even dances for the first time since losing his wife. All appears well, until the youngest of the children Gretl informs Maria that Georg has fallen in love with her and, despite her denials, Maria is clearly smitten too. As a nun, Maria believes that such love should be forbidden, so she leaves without warning and returns to the Abbey. But a subsequent confab with the Mother Abbess (Jan Hartley) convinces her to return back to the Von Trapp home and truly seek love.

When she does return, there is confusion in that Georg is now apparently set to marry Elsa (albeit with some reluctance), and Max is trying to arrange for the children to perform at a public show, something that Georg remains defiant against. The situation is soon worked out so that Georg and Maria get what they want, but a new problem surfaces when the rising Nazi regime insists that Georg leave his family behind for a major Navy role. Georg clearly does not want to do this, but the political dictatorship means that he may not have a choice. In the end, the talent show is the only way to buy some additional time with his family, but the question remains: how can he avoid his family behind, and even if he does, might he have to return to his past - or even Maria's past - to do so?

The story is fairly reasonable to follow, although some elements of the second Act felt a little rushed; that being said, they didn't detract in any way from the standard of the show, which was as high-quality as you could expect. I interviewed Danielle Hope prior to the show (you can read the interview here), and she lived up to expectations by delivering a fantastically believable performance as Maria. She helped to make the character humble, so that you always sided with her and sympathised with her plights when they arose, and is so honest and true that her opinions have value and it is clear that any of her stated intentions truly reflect her real emotions. Danielle was a great choice for Maria, quite the compliment considering the expectations for this show and the high standard of prior productions and of the movie itself.

And then there's the music. As you would expect, all of the classics are here, from ("The hills are alive to") The Sound Of Music and Maria to My Favourite Things and So Long, Farewell. The singing performances, though, are what this show would really be judged on, and the good news is that the singers in most cases were spectacular. Danielle brings a musical background via her past experience on Over The Rainbow which propelled her to The Wizard Of Oz and a subsequently successful theatre career, and her talent definitely shone through here: her solo and joint performances were top-notch, especially those in sync with the children who, themselves, were very good both at singing and acting.

But the unsung hero has to be Jan Hartley who, in her role as Mother Abbess, delivered stunning renditions of Climb Every Mountain and Finale Ultimo to conclude each half. When it comes to hitting the high notes, Jan definitely did this with aplomb, and arguably stole the show on a night of five-star performances. Steven Houghton as Captain Von Trapp was a slight notch below the other performers, both in terms of acting and singing, but was commendable nonetheless. In other notes: the scenery was very believable, particularly the Abbey which was extremely authentic in its design, and the structure of the show as a whole was thoroughly professional.

The Sound Of Music appeals to all ages, genders and backgrounds; even those without an interest in music will recognise some of the numbers. Therefore, it is easy to recommend this show. However, for theatregoers who frequently attend musicals and are looking to be mesmerised, I strongly urge you to see The Sound Of Music. It takes an all-time classic and, while it still adheres to the original, it has a unique charm which gives it something of its own identity. There are a number of shows that you simply have to see, and this is definitely on that list. Make plans to see it; you will join the audience in truly coming alive to The Sound Of Music.

Overall Rating: 9/10 - Outstanding

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