Musical Review: The Sound of Music (2017, Singapore)

For inSing

THE SOUND OF MUSIC 

7 November to 2 December 2017 at the MasterCard Theatres in Marina Bay Sands, Singapore 

It’s a musical theatre staple that has resonated across the decades: The Sound of Music returns to the MasterCard Theatres at Marina Bay Sands in Singapore, having last played here in 2014. With its memorable songs, heart-warming romance, adorable children and themes of standing up for one’s principles, it’s no surprise that the show has staying power.

The Sound of Music is a fictionalisation of The Trapp Family Singers, the autobiography of the real-life Maria von Trapp. With music by Richard Rodgers, lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein and a libretto by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, the musical debuted in 1959. The Sound of Music skyrocketed into the public consciousness with a blockbuster film adaptation released in 1965. Directed by Robert Wise and starring Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer, the film won five Academy Awards.

It is 1938, and young Maria (Carmen Pretorius), who is studying to be a nun at Nonnberg Abbey, is sent to be a governess to the seven children of Naval Captain Georg Von Trapp (Nicholas Maude). The Captain has become distant to his children after the death of his wife, and implements strict discipline in the household. Maria baulks at this, and decides to teach the children music.

While the Captain is initially resistant to Maria’s methods, they eventually warm to each other and romance blossoms. However, the Captain is about to marry the wealthy Elsa Schraeder (Haylea Heyns). When the Captain and Elsa’s mutual friend Max Detweiler (Jonathan Taylor) hears the children sing, he is impressed and enters the family of singers into the upcoming Salzburg music festival. With the impending annexation of Austria by the Third Reich, the Captain receives an offer to join the Navy in Berlin. The family must make a stand and escape the Nazis before it’s too late.

With the widespread adoration it’s received, The Sound of Music has also garnered its share of criticism. The show is typically decried and treacly and overly-sentimental, and makes large deviations from the true story. As Agathe (the real-life analogue of Liesl), the oldest Von Trapp daughter put it, “It’s a very nice story but it’s not our story. If they hadn’t used our name I probably would have enjoyed it.”

That said, the show’s charm is irresistible, and anyone who’s a fan of the film should experience it live. There’s something quaint about its old-fashioned nature, and yet the staging is anything but stodgy and dull. This production was originally staged at the London Palladium in 2006, and is co-produced by Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Under the baton of musical director Kevin Kraak, the orchestra sounds marvellous, achieving the illusion that the ensemble is far larger than it is. This production uses the original orchestration by Robert Russell Bennett from the 1959 show.

The set and costume designs by Rob Jones are sumptuous, and the stage seamlessly transforms from Nonnberg Alley with its arched hallways into the stately Von Trapp mansion with its grand staircase and chandelier. Mark Henderson’s lighting design is naturalistic, but gently heightened in a painterly way when required. The thunderstorm sequence is especially realistic. The choreography by Arlene Phillips of Strictly Come Dancing fame is playfully dynamic without being overly busy.

Pretorius is a sprightly, energetic Maria, effectively conveying the free-spirited liveliness that is one of the character’s defining traits. When the production last came to Singapore, she played the oldest daughter Liesl. The South African actress’ vocal inflection seems patterned after Julie Andrews, but does not come off as mimicry. There’s a pleasant lightness and subtle strength to her voice, and there is precision to her movements which doesn’t sacrifice the feeling of spontaneity. She makes for a Maria who is eminently loveable and easy to root for.

Maude is dashing and refined as the Captain. This is role that’s all too easy to play as overly stiff, but Maude’s interpretation of the role is anything but. The warmth beneath the stern exterior is readily visible, and his rendition of “Edelweiss” is appropriately tender.

Janelle Visagie previously played the Mother Abbess when the show ran here in 2014, and proves to be a perfect match for the role. She imbues “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” with the ideal balance of solemnness and inspirational uplift, and her soaring performance of that number, which closes out Act 1, is a highlight of the show.

The six younger Von Trapp children are played by locally-based actors who were cast via an audition held in May. 18 children share the six roles. The young performers are impressive, and are no doubt a big draw for audiences. It’s hard to pick a favourite, but this reviewer is especially fond of Max Makatsaria as Kurt. Emily Kitamura is cute as a button as the youngest child, Gretl. In our performance, Friedrich was played by Louis Beatty, Louisa by Samantha Lee, Brigitta by Sasha Suhandinata and Marta by Chloe Schueler.

The one casting choice that didn’t quite work for this reviewer was Zoe Beavon as Liesl. It might seem like a superficial complaint, but Beavon is significantly taller than Pretorius, and appears older than Michael McMeeking, who plays Liesl’s boyfriend Rolf. She isn’t as believable as a 16-year-old as the child actors are playing the corresponding ages of the other Von Trapp kids. This ordinarily wouldn’t be too big of an issue, but the song “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” does call attention to it.

Jonathan Taylor and Haylea Heyns inhabit the roles of Max Detweiler and Baroness Schareder splendidly. These supporting characters are easy to play too broadly, and they keep their performances the right level of comedic.

There’s nary a dull moment in the show and it feels much shorter than its running time, but the story also feels rushed. Everything moves so quickly, and the relationship between Maria and the Captain doesn’t get much room to breathe. The Von Trapp children also go from being indifferent towards to Maria to absolutely adoring her in a matter of minutes. The show downplays the politics, and as such it is somewhat jarring when Swastika-emblazoned banners are unfurled, and Nazi Stormtroopers are standing onstage.

Those attached to the film version should just be prepared that since the movie made some changes from the stage show, some songs appear at different places that one would be familiar with: “My Favourite Things” is a duet between the Mother Abbess and Maria before she leaves the abbey, and “The Lonely Goatherd” is sung during the thunderstorm. “How Can Love Survive” and “No Way to Stop It” were excised from the film, and show up here. “Something Good”, which in the film replaced “An Ordinary Couple”, remains.

The Sound of Music has become an easy target for cynics, but for those of us whose hearts haven’t calcified into a blackened, angry mass, there’s plenty here to enjoy. With strong lead performances and plenty of talent on display from locally-based kids, the performances complement the well-appointed set. The timeless music continues to be stirring and powerful, and as one leaves the theatre, one might feel a twinge of sadness that it’s time to say “so long, farewell”.

The Sound of Music is an Andrew Lloyd Webber, David Ian and The Really Useful Group production, presented by Lunchbox Theatrical Productions, BASE Entertainment Asia, Sliding Doors Entertainment and David Atkins Enterprises. The show runs from 7 November to 2 December 2017 at the MasterCard Theatres in Marina Bay Sands, Sinapore. Ticket prices start from $65 (excluding the $4 booking fee per ticket). Visit www.MarinaBaySands.com/ticketing or www.sistic.com.sg to purchase tickets.

By Jedd Jong

Bringing the hills to life: The Sound of Music press call

For inSing

BRINGING THE HILLS TO LIFE: THE SOUND OF MUSIC PRESS CALL

inSing gets a preview of the legendary musical as it returns to Singapore

By Jedd Jong

The Sound of Music is among the most enduring and iconic stage musicals ever created, and it has returned to Singapore. inSing was at the Marina Bay Sands Theatre to attend the press call for The Sound of Music, where the show last played in 2014.

The Sound of Music is a fictionalisation of The Story of the Trapp Family Singers, the real-life Maria Von Trapp’s autobiography. The story revolves around Maria Rainier, a free-spirited former nun who is hired as the governess to an unyielding Naval captain’s seven children. The children, whom she teaches to sing, eventually warm to Maria, and the family becomes known as a singing group. However, their idyllic existence is threatened by the onset of World War II, and the family must plot their escape from the Nazis, who have ordered the Von Trapps to perform for them.

The team of composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II created such memorable songs as “Climb Ev’ry Mountain”, “My Favourite Things”, “Edelweiss” and “Sixteen Going on Seventeen”, many of which have become standards within the showtune genre. The show debuted in 1959 and was adapted into an Oscar-winning film in 1965. The film, starring Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer and directed by Robert Wise, recently celebrated its 50th anniversary.

This iteration of the show was first staged in 2006 at the London Palladium, produced by Andrew Lloyd Webber. An agreement between Lloyd Webber’s The Really Useful Group and the Rodgers and Hammerstein estates means that this is the only production that is currently granted permission to use the songs that appear in the film version.

Associate director Frank Thompson has been with the show since 2006, and was the Resident Director of The Sound of Music when it was performed at the London Palladium and for its subsequent UK tour. Thompson remarked that while most touring productions of musicals are pared down from the original staging, The Sound of Music seems to have gotten bigger – seven-eight shipping crates are required to transport the show’s equipment, sets, backdrops, props and costumes from country to country.

Carmen Pretorius and Nicholas Maude

“You can’t get anything better than live dialogue and live music and the experience through that tangible medium,” Thompson said, when asked why audiences should come to see the show live. “Sometimes we are so attached to technology that we don’t feel it as much.”

The lead role of Maria is played by South African performer Carmen Pretorius, who previously portrayed the oldest Von Trapp daughter Liesl when the show last came to Singapore. “Artistically, it’s a very big step up,” Pretorius said of her ‘promotion’. “It’s a challenge, it’s exciting and it keeps me on my toes. Liesl was a little bit less challenging. It’s been a very exciting journey and I’ve gotten to know the show very well from two different angles.”

Pretorius described the process of breathing life into the show performance after performance – the show runs eight times a week. “The key for any good actor is to be in the moment. Although a lot of things are set, we do have to play off each other, and that’s what keeps the magic alive.” Pretorius added that it is key to remember that each audience is comprised of completely different people, and many might be seeing Maria melt the Captain’s heart for the first time.

“It’s very easy to melt when you look at Carmen, you just do that,” said Nicholas Maude, who plays Captain Von Trapp.

“It’s very easy to melt when you look at Nick,” Pretorius replied, the actors demonstrating their chemistry.

Being in a touring production of a musical is tough on the body. Pretorius’ secret weapon: ginger. In addition to drinking ginger tea, Pretorius “bites ginger like an apple”. She also swears by Pei Pa Koa, the traditional Chinese throat remedy.

On the children in the cast, Maude remarked ““They’re so professional and it’s inspiring,” adding that he would not have been as confident and professional at that age. “When I was younger, I was gawky and insecure. They’re so good, they’re so talented, and they really give on stage.”

Pretorius agreed, saying that working with the young cast members reminds her of when she was starting out as a theatre performer. “You forget being that little kid going to your first audition and having big dreams about being on stage. You can see that happening on their faces and it reminds you of your own journey; we all relate to that.”

“They’re going to teach me about Snapchat,” Maude quipped.

Left to right: Emily Riddle, Jane Callista, Chloe Choo, Alfie Hodgson, Sophea Pennington, Mateo Fuentes, Zoe Beavon

The role of Liesl is played throughout the tour by Zoe Beavon, but the younger Von Trapp children are cast with local child actors from each city that the tour visits. A total of 18 children share the six roles, and we met some of them at the press call.

Being a part of the production is an educational experience for these budding theatre actors, many of whom are already accomplished despite their age. “We get to learn all the theatre rules and get to meet all these incredible people and professionals,” said Jane Callista, who plays Marta. Callista was a finalist on The Voices Kids Indonesia in 2016.

From left: Jane Callista, Frank Thompson, Chloe Choo

Chloe Choo, who plays Brigitta, is no stranger to the stage. She recently played Small Allison in Pangdemonium’s staging of the musical Fun Home. The 11-year-old Choo is no stranger to The Sound of Music either, having played the role of Gretl in 2014. Thompson joked that when the show returns in 2080, Choo will play Maria.

13-year-old Mateo Fuentes, who plays Friedrich, said that the cast has become “like [his] family”. Being in the show has given him the opportunity “to learn with people who come from all around the world.”

From left: Mateo Fuentes, Sophea Pennington, Alfie Hodgson, Chloe Choo, Jane Callista, Emily Riddle

The Sound of Music was the first musical that Emily Riddle, who plays the littlest Von Trapp child, watch. When asked if she is living her dream, she replied empathically “I am!”

“I think the show is very beautiful and I think it touches many people’s hearts,” Sophea Pennington, who plays Louisa, remarked. Pennington’s family moved from Australia to Singapore four years ago, and she has played several leading roles, including Annie in the Stamford American International School production of the musical. “It really does bring people together,” she said of the show.

Alfie Hodgson, who plays Kurt, said he enjoys the experience of “having a professional job and meeting all the cast”. Hodgson has acted on the MBS Theatre stage before, in 2016’s A Right Rubbish Christmas.

Janelle Visagie

Janelle Visagie reprises the role of the Mother Abbess, which she also played in 2014. Like Pretorius, she is from South Africa, and has performed in multiple productions for the Cape Town Opera, including Madam ButterflyDon Giovanni and Rigoletto. Viasagie laughed heartily when this writer suggested that the Mother Abbess is like Maria’s Yoda. “Carmen and I are really good friends in real life, and I am a little bit older than her, so it makes it a bit easier to go into that role of being a caregiver type,” she said of playing the role of mentor and spiritual guide.

What Viasagie admires most about Singapore might be surprising – it’s the way we manage our water resources. “The way Singapore uses their water, reuse and recycle, it’s not a tourist thing, but for me it’s one of the most amazing things about Singapore, how effective they are. Everything is so efficient and clean,” she said.

The Sound of Music is an Andrew Lloyd Webber, David Ian and The Really Useful Group production, presented by Lunchbox Theatrical Productions, BASE Entertainment Asia, Sliding Doors Entertainment and David Atkins Enterprises. The show runs from 7 November to 2 December 2017 at the MasterCard Theatres in Marina Bay Sands, Sinapore. Ticket prices start from $65 (excluding the $4 booking fee per ticket). Visit www.MarinaBaySands.com/ticketing or www.sistic.com.sg to purchase tickets.