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Last Sunday, due to circumstances I should have controlled, I arrived 20 minutes late for Lyric Opera's production of The Sound of Music.
It's a fast-paced show: I had already missed five opening scenes. And the next performance was three days away.
That's not a good scenario for a reviewer.
As bad career moments go, it's right up there.
But I haven't been driven from the abbey for this offense (yet). The major consequence was that I was able to see most of the show twice—and from three different vantage points—before writing about it.
The vantage points are relevant, because the Civic Opera House, with 3,563 seats, is more than twice the size of the Broadway-style theaters American musicals were intended for. The scale is epic, not intimate, and that's a killer challenge.
It can suck the life right out of shows that work perfectly well in smaller venues.
The Sound of Music, however, is alive and doing well in the big house, thanks to strong casting, sure-footed direction, and wonderful songs by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II (for a book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, based on the von Trapp family's inspiring true story). Also, thanks in no small part to Michael Yeargan's beautiful sets, gliding majestically in and out of view. They tame the huge stage while taking advantage of it to present bigger-than-life versions of the villa and abbey where most of the action—set in Salzburg, Austria, in 1938—takes place.
Like the warhorses of the opera repertoire, The Sound of Music, which opened on Broadway in 1959, is very familiar to its audience, most of whom can hum nearly every tune. Chalk that up to the 1965 movie version, which the stage show now competes with, but also complements. This intimacy with story, score, and characters makes any performance a kind of ritual. That can be deadly, but in this vast venue, it's an asset. And director Marc Bruni, whose current Broadway show, Beautiful, is a hit, isn't screwing with the audience's expectations. When Jenn Gambatese—a powerhouse as both actor and singer—makes her entrance as Maria, we know what she ought to be, and can quickly see (and hear) that she won't disappoint.
Gambatese is supported by a cadre of sopranos at home on the Lyric stage: Christine Brewer (as the impressive Mother Abbess), Elizabeth Futral (as the glamorous Elsa Schraeder), and a host of singing nuns, mostly members of the Lyric Opera Chorus, along with a 37-piece orchestra. Broadway actor Edward Hibbert is a hoot as Max Detweiler, the seven von Trapp children—pros beyond their years—are the production's greatest delight, and recent NU grad Zach Sorrow displays notable song and dance chops as Rolf, the eldest daughter's eager-Nazi beau. Film actor Billy Zane, who was a wooden Captain von Trapp on Sunday, came closer to the charismatic character he needs to be by Wednesday.
A few quibbles: dialogue that was hard to catch on Sunday was understandable on Wednesday, either fixed or a function of where I was sitting. But to my ear, the amplification—necessary for musical theater, but not something Lyric usually does—distorted sound on the high end, robbing the sopranos of the bell-like clarity the opera house acoustics usually offer. And the single Yeargan design that didn't work for me was an important one: the contrived little mountain range that Maria has to negotiate as we get our first look at her. This, of course, is where the movie trumps: even at the Civic Opera House, it's hard to do realistic Alps on stage.
While I was biding my time, waiting for the next performance, I read the daily newspaper reviews that landed on my doorstep. The Tribune's Chris Jones liked this production; Hedy Weiss at the Sun-Times, not so much. I think they're both right. There are no surprises in this Sound of Music. If you're looking for innovation, reinterpretation, or even a thrilling, break-out experience, you'll be disappointed. But fans of the film and stage show—especially those introducing their children to it—will find it faithful, beautiful, and bigger than they're ever likely to see it again.
Lyric, which has scheduled three more postseason Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals in coming years, is hoping those fans will also decide to try its more typical fare. In the meantime, there are 24 more performances of this one.
The Sound of Music Through 5/25, times vary; see website, Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker, 312-332-2244, lyricopera.org, $29-$199.