The hills aren't alive... but 'The Sound of Music' still carries

Sentimentalists love "The Sound of Music." So do lowbrows. Even highbrows hum the songs. So when the touring show of "Dr. Doolittle" unexpectedly cancelled, 5th Avenue Theatre hastily announced Rodgers and Hammerstein's 1959 Broadway crowd-pleaser as the replacement.

Although it's a decent production, "The Sound of Music" falls short of 5th Avenue's high standard. Still, the children are cute, Maria heartfelt and the Mother Abbess, glorious.

Based on the real-life story of Maria von Trapp, the show marked Rodgers and Hammerstein's final and most popular collaboration, soon followed by the 1965 blockbuster movie starring Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer.

The musical's book, co-authored by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, has everything: romance, kids, nuns and Nazis. In 1938 Salzburg, a high-spirited postulant leaves the abbey to try her hand at mothering a widowed Austrian Captain's children. She teaches his kids to sing, brings joy to the schloss and falls hard for the stern, straight-laced Captain. It's not long before his fancy fiancée dumps him after he realizes his true feelings for the almost-nun. But their forever-after bliss is blitzed by the Nazi onslaught. As is a teen crush between Liesl and Rolf, a Hitler Youth messenger. Toss in some Swiss yodeling, singing nuns, a charming-but-jaded music promoter named Max and seven singing siblings.

Audiences know the songs as well as the performers who sing them. The score touts sing-along standards, including its sweeping title song, the cheerful "Do Re Mi," the folk anthem "Edelweiss," the infectious "My Favorite Things" and the inspiring "Climb Every Mountain." So if the kids, Maria and the nuns can sing, people leave the theater smiling and singing.

Jamie Rocco directs 5th Avenue's rather predictable production, which stars Broadway notables Kim Huber as Maria and Terrence Mann as Captain Georg von Trapp.

Huber makes a delightful Maria. She exudes youthful vigor and warmth, sings beautifully and has a charming rapport with the children. But Huber runs into onstage competition. She's almost upstaged by her real-life 5-year-old daughter, Paige Befeler, making her stage debut as Gretl von Trapp. An absolutely adorable child, she steals your heart with her spontaneity and candor.

The little one proved herself a real trouper when she accidentally bumped her head on mom's guitar in the "Do Re Mi" scene. But not one tear fell; she rubbed her forehead and quickly recovered. This irresistible imp never misses a cue. She swings her arms and marches in time like a Shirley Temple protégée, sometimes fidgets with her dress during songs and accidentally steps on her mother's train during the wedding scene.

But all of the children prove themselves to be winners. When they're onstage, the musical's energy and appeal rise several notches. Cara Rudd's voice sometimes lacks breath support, but her sweet and appealing nature as 16-going-on-17 Liesl more than makes up for this.

Although Mann brings considerable Broadway clout - having originated the role of Javert in "Les Misérables," Run Tum Tugger in "Cats" and the Beast in "Beauty and the Beast," he disappoints as Captain von Trapp, opting for a stereotypical performance: passive and dull. One problem is the lack of romantic chemistry between Mann and Huber. Two, he's sporting a beard that makes him look more like a tugboat captain than an imperial officer of the Austrian Navy.

Because the film remains so ingrained in our hearts, any stage production faces stiff comparison. This one adds two songs written expressly for the film by Richard Rodgers. "Something Good," the love song between the Captain and Maria, replaces their original stage duet, "Ordinary People." And Maria sings "I Have Confidence" to transition her trek to the Captain's home. Unfortunately, you won't hear "There's No Way to Stop It," from the stage version, obviously shelved to cut the show's running time.

You expect the nuns' voices to blend blissfully into one exquisite choral sound. But on opening night, there were too many soloists and not enough harmony, until the wedding processional in Act Two. Carol Swarbrick does a brief but spirited turn as the outspoken Sister Berthe, as does Leslie Law playing sympathetic Sister Margaretta. But it is Susan Marie Pierson as the Mother Abbess who fulfills every expectation. Her soaring operatic soprano on "Climb Every Mountain" stimulates the requisite goosebumps. And bravo for her reprise, with that single shaft of light beaming upon her like a heavenly host.

As a supporting player, Kristin Flanders portrays the Viennese vixen Baroness Schraeder with aristocratic élan. Not only can she sing, but her sophisticated bitchiness adds just the right touch to the worldly widow who has the Captain pegged as her next husband. As the incorrigible houseguest Max, David Hunter Koch delivers witty comedy relief, especially when he and Flanders team up for the musical lament of two romancing rich people, "How Can Love Survive?"

At first the old-fashioned, rented sets and backdrops, designed by Kenneth Foy, make you want to scream. Maria sings "The Sound of Music" from a turf-covered mound that looks more like a SeaFair float than a grassy alpine summit. Ditto for those fake rocks. But in 5th Avenue's defense, their designers lacked the time to create their own sets. And unless Maria sings "The Sound of Music" on the side of Mount Rainier, most vistas would reek of simulation.

For the most part, Lynda L. Salsbury's costumes are predictable. Maria's hand-me-down wardrobe clones Julie Andrews' movie togs, although Salsbury might want to put a slip on the wannabe nun for the Laendler. No wonder the Captain's so taken with her, after glimpsing her gams as she swirls through the complicated dance steps. Salsbury redeems herself with Baroness Schraeder's vintage-couture, scarlet-red suit and stunning evening gown with matching elbow-length gloves, also in eye-popping scarlet.

As we watched 5th Avenue's production, we had to pretend several things. We had to pretend the mountains were real. We had to pretend the thunderstorm was realistic and that Liesl really got wet. We had to pretend the Nazis had accents. And we had to pretend Maria and the Captain were in love.

But we didn't have to pretend that Maria was charming. Or that the Mother Abbess's voice was divine. Or that darling Paige wrapped us around her precious little finger. She did. Over and over and over. And we loved every moment, almost as much as we loved her.

[[In-content Ad]]