Everybody loves The Sound of Music, don’t they? It was a natural choice for us to take our nieces Secret Agent Code November and Special Agent Code Sierra to see a show completely suitable for children. As indeed did the majority of the citizens of Leicester, judging from the number of children who were in Saturday’s matinee audience. All eager for a stage presentation of that sweet, wholesome musical film that generations have grown up with. Of course, the original stage version preceded the film by six years, but we don’t often think about that.
You can smell that crisp, unpolluted Austrian countryside air. The delectable, yet innocent, Julie Andrews teaching children to sing Do-re-Mi. Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens. High on a hill stood a lonely goatherd. Larks that are learning to pray. It’s the full package. Yes, of course there are Nazis, but you never really get the sense that they’re anything but plastic baddies creating a bit of an exciting chase towards the end of the film.
That used to be my opinion. Then on 9th April 2007 we saw the Palladium production starring Connie How do you solve a problem like Maria Fisher – except that it was one of the performances where Maria was played by Sophie Bould who normally played Liesl – and extremely good she was too. But the most memorable thing about that production was how, about three-quarters of the way through, the Palladium transformed itself into a Nazi rally, with huge swastika banners hurling down from the ceiling throughout the auditorium; and that simple device just took my breath away. It was really scary.
So there is definitely a blend of the sweet and the sour in this show. Mrs Chrisparkle and I once dressed up for a performance of Sing-along-a-Sound-of-Music at the Wycombe Swan. That experience certainly emphasised the sweet side of the story. Mrs C became a less than demure nun and I was a redoubtable, fully-kitted-out German Officer. The best dressed competition was tough for the ladies as the place was awash with nuns of all shapes and sizes. However, us German Officer lads were fewer and farther in between. Only half a dozen or so of us actually got on the stage to be voted on, and I think I was the only one who assumed any sort of character. I based my performance on Bernard Hepton in Colditz, only a bit more vicious. I got loads of boos and hisses. and won a rather lousy CD of cover versions of Sound of Music songs for my pains.
The new production of The Sound of Music at the Leicester Curve – which ended its season on the 17th January – repeated the dream team of the previous year’s Chicago, being directed by Paul Kerryson (his swansong before standing down as Curve Artistic Director) and choreographed by up-and-coming dance genius Drew McOnie. It was a beautiful production, and I’m glad we managed to see it on its final day. Al Parkinson’s sets were stunning, on a grand scale. The severe looking bars that dropped down to represent the hallowed gated cloisters of the Abbey, with coloured lighting coming from imaginary stained glass windows; and the huge painting that appeared to suggest the Reverend Mother’s office gave it a real sense of substance and occasion. The surprisingly natural looking green mountain where Maria first appears, with its big strong trees descending into place made you want to go for a hike; the grandeur of the inside of Captain von Trapp’s villa made you feel like you were worth a million dollars. The Nazi element was also effectively portrayed, with the subtle regular introduction of swastikas on armbands as the show proceeds, and when the von Trapp children are performing at the Kaltzberg Festival there was no escaping our row (E of the stalls) as we had two Nazi “heavies” at either end, observing us closely and making sure we weren’t going to assist in any escape attempt. As if.
Recently a number of otherwise really good musicals have been spoiled by the sound amplification. In some – Calamity Jane, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels – it was really hard to hear the words at all because of the over-amplification. Well, all praise to the people twiddling the technical knobs at the Curve because the sound quality in this show was just perfect. The star roles were sung with impeccable exquisiteness anyway; but the overall clarity and purity of the sound throughout the performance was amazing.
Maria was played by Laura Pitt-Pulford, who was a magnificent Irene in the Curve’s Hello Dolly a couple of years ago. It was a faultless performance; the singing, the humour, the warmth, the anguish, were all perfect. Seeing her Maria was like meeting an old friend – there’s a lot you remember from when you last met but since then they’ve got a few new tricks up their sleeve too. By the time she’d finished singing the opening “Sound of Music” theme I had goosebumps everywhere. I loved her relationship with the children – especially Emma Harrold’s Liesl (so much better in this show than in the awful Happy Days) – and her growing relationship with the Captain was very delicately portrayed. Her Ländler dance with him, after which one of the children, Brigitta, tells her that she’s obviously in love her dad, was one of those deep down, genuinely lovely moments.
In the performance we saw, the Captain was played by Mark Inscoe (who normally plays Max, and who we last saw as a villainous Claudius in Hamlet the Musical). His was a very different Captain from any other I’d seen, in that he didn’t come across as particularly tyrannical at first. He didn’t raise his voice in belligerence or strictness; he just liked households to run like a well-oiled machine. In fact he was like one of those very quiet level-headed bosses who you know will handle a crisis well – firmly but fairly. In many respects it’s a much more believable presentation, but it does also mean that his leaving the dark side and becoming nice again isn’t quite so dramatic. This Captain definitely reserves his tough side for dealing with the Nazi sympathisers rather than disobedient children. I very much enjoyed his performance though, including how he doesn’t have much time for his reprehensible pal Max (played on this occasion by Matt Harrop, who warmed into the role during the course of the show) and having a lot of flirtatiousness with the glamorous Frau Schräder, (she’s just a Frau here, she’s a Baroness in the film), played with style and vivacity by Emma Clifford (although Mrs C wasn’t convinced by her accent).
The other outstanding performance was by Susannah van den Berg as the Mother Abbess. Previously we’d seen her in a relatively minor role in Fiddler on the Roof where she was clearly hiding her light under a bushel. Her Mother Abbess is a fantastic creation – balanced, witty and not afraid to be cruel to be kind. When she sang Climb Every Mountain before the interval, those goosebumps came back in droves. A total musical treat. There was also excellent support from Hannah Grace, Rebecca Ridout and Kate Manley as the Sisters with opposing views of how you solve a problem like Maria; an intelligent performance by Jack Wilcox as Rolf who seems kindly enough to Liesl in the superbly staged Sixteen Going on Seventeen, but proves himself a turncoat at the end; and an excellently nasty portrayal of Nazi enthusiast Herr Zeller by Patrick Moy.
And then, of course, there are the children. A captain with seven children…. what’s so fearsome about that? I always enjoy that line. The programme lists a choice of two or three names against each child character but with no photos so I’m afraid I don’t know which particular actors we saw in our performance. Suffice to say they were all excellent. I do think they were probably considerably older than the children they were playing – especially the character of seven-year-old Marta who seemed very mature – but they never put a foot or a vocal chord wrong throughout. You’re not meant to have favourites with kids, but little Gretl was outstandingly cute, and Kurt was impishly decent in his dancing with Maria. Their So Long Farewell was definitely a highlight of the show.
All in all, a superb production that looked and sounded absolutely great throughout. A very fitting send-off for Paul Kerryson, and a tribute to the wonderful theatre that he has steered artistically over the past few years. We all loved the show, and have been singing the songs with irritating regularity ever since!