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Monday, August 08, 2016

The Sound of Music (The Smith Centre)

Culture is a relative term in Las Vegas. There is plenty of middle-brow culture--Celine Dion, Britney Spears, Carrot Top (he may be low, actually). There are plenty of Cirque du Soleil shows, Penn and Teller, and the Blue Man Group, but where Vegas is lacking is in live theater. It can be found, but it takes some doing. Unlike New York City, where there are hundreds of plays and musicals every night of the week, there is no such equivalent in Las Vegas.

However, a few years ago Las Vegas took a step to improve this by building The Smith Centre, a complex with several theaters that features jazz, ballet, opera, and other classical music. It also has something called the Broadway Las Vegas series, which imports nine Broadway-style musicals for the culture-starved.

Unfortunately, there are no straight plays in the series, which is my interest, but I decided to bite and buy a subscription. Mostly I did it for my girlfriend, who had never seen a Broadway show, or any other of its type, before. When she learned that The Sound of Music, Rodgers and Hammerstein's golden oldie, was the first show, she got very excited. It was quite an ordeal to get her to the show--she broke her knee on Wednesday but she was a trooper and with the aid of a wheelchair, an elevator, and a kind usher, we were seated in the first row of the balcony.

Now, The Sound of Music is not my idea of high culture. I'm more interested in some of the musicals coming up, especially Fun Home. But watching The Sound of Music is like going to see a favorite old band in concert--you know all the songs.

This production, directed by Broadway pro Jack O'Brien, is very well done and professional. It doesn't take a lot of risks--maybe having three large Nazi banners during the Salzburg festival is a bit eye-opening--but its pleasing to the eye and ear.

Having recently seen the movie, I was struck by the differences. For anyone who doesn't know, the plot concerns a novice, Maria, who is sent to be a governess for the seven children of a widower, Captain von Trapp.  She is a free spirit, he is a tight-ass, but of course it will be music, hence the title, that will bring them together. But there are those pesky Nazis.

The differences from the film are many. "My Favorite Things," in the movie, is sung by Maria with the children, but in the show it's with the Mother Abbess (in the show she sings "The Lonely Goatherd" to calm them during a thunderstorm). Also, the film fleshes out the relationship with Maria and the children, and Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer weren't so far apart in age that it made their marriage icky. Also, the movie made a villain of Rolf, but in the show he doesn't turn them in. But we also don't get the punchline of the nuns stealing spark plugs.

Here, we get an actress who is of an appropriate age, and she belts it out of the park. Kirsten Anderson, plucked out of college to be in the tour, is irrepressible and just about perfect. Her Captain, Ben Davis, is given grayed hair, and since Anderson doesn't look much older than Paige Sylvester, who plays Liesl. In real life, Maria von Trapp was twenty-five years younger than her husband, but I couldn't help but feel a little queasy about the whole thing. The Captain is an impossible role to play, as he has to change his entire outlook on a dime, but Davis has a fine voice, if he isn't maybe too stiff.

I didn't find anything else to complain about. Merwin Foard makes a terrific Max Detweiler, and the children, while not given individual moments like the film does (except for Sylvester, who gets "Sixteen Going on Seventeen") are all wonderful, especially in "So Long, Farewell." (A man down the row from me couldn't help but accompany them on the "cuckoo!")

The best voice in the show can usually be found with the Mother Abbess, here played by Melody Betts. It's color-blind casting, as Ms. Betts is African American, which O'Brien made a little fun of by giving a comic pause after she says, "I was brought up in the mountains, too."

The evening's greatest success was that my girlfriend loved it. I'm the kind of guy who likes to see familiar things through the eyes of someone else, which is like seeing it for the first time.

And, by the way, the Smith Centre is quite a place, as grand a theater as I've been to, rivaling Lincoln Center. And I have nothing but good things to say about their staff.

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