Legendary Broadway composers Rodgers and Hammerstein began their musical collaboration with Oklahoma! and reached the peak of their success with their final production, The Sound of Music, which featured more popular, hit songs than any of their previous shows—quite a feat with their track record! The multi-award-winning musical opened on Broadway in 1959, and the Oscar-winning film premiered in 1965. A new national tour of the show opened at Broadway Sacramento on Wednesday, October 26, and runs until Sunday, November 6, at the Community Center Theater. Most of us are familiar with the Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer movie version, but this production follows closely the original stage concept, so seeing it is a somewhat different experience, with some very obvious, and some very subtle changes from the film version. The touring production is directed by Broadway veteran Jack O’Brien.
Newcomer and college student, Kerstin Anderson, plays the iconic role of Maria Rainer (yes, she has a last name!) The show opens, not with Maria spinning in the mountains of Austria, but with the nuns of the Nonnberg Abbey singing the Latin hymn, "Preludium." It is then we are greeted with Maria exclaiming that the hills are alive with “The Sound of Music,” and Anderson’s chance to show her strong, beautiful voice, letting the audience know she is up to the challenge of taking on Julie Andrews’ iconic role. We are soon back to the Abbey where Melody Betts as the Mother Abbess, and three of the nuns, deliver the playful song, and one of the themes of the show, "(How do you solve a problem like) Maria?" Betts has a powerful operatic voice, which will later bring us "Climb Every Mountain." But the first surprise comes as she and Maria sing "My Favorite Things," which film fans are used to hearing later in the story when Maria comforts the children with during a stormy night. It makes sense in the story, but you can also see how brilliant it was to move its place for the film, as it fits so perfectly in the mood and allows Maria to inadvertently compare Captain Von Trapp to a biting dog. But in the play, the stormy bedroom song is "The Lonely Goatherd," which was used for the elaborate marionette show in the film.
Captain Georg Von Trapp is played by Ben Davis, who has a rich and powerful voice, but with a romantic enough look to be a perfect leading man. Largely in the background of the first act, he has a powerful moment with his children after Maria has convinced him that he doesn’t really know his own kids. You can see the redemption in his heart when he joins them in singing "The Sound of Music." His daughter Leisl is played by Sacramento’s Paige Sylvester, who has a lovely, gentle voice, and shines in another of the great songs from the show, "Sixteen Going on Seventeen" with her boyfriend, Rolf (Austin Colby.) The song is even nicer when she sings it again with Anderson in the reprise version near the end of the show. Their two voices blend as beautifully as any in the show.
Another big change from the film version involves the roles of Max Detweiler (Merwin Foard) and Elsa Schraeder (Teri Hansen.) They share two songs with Georg – "How Can Love Survive," a cynical, comic song about love and wealth, and "No Way to Stop It," when the two try to convince Georg to just go along with the Nazi takeover of Austria. In the stage version, it is this song, not Georg's love for Maria, that shows the couple that they are not meant to be together.
But of course, Georg and Maria do fall in love, thanks especially to the moment they share in dancing the Ländler before Maria runs off in fear (but is then urged to "Climb Every Mountain" by the Mother Abbess, and returns to the family.) One of the most unusual parts of the film version is the love song that Maria and Georg share. A lovely tune called "Something Good," it begins with Maria singing “Perhaps I had a wicked childhood, Perhaps I had a miserable youth. But somewhere in my wicked, miserable past, there must have been a moment of truth.” Really? We know Maria was an orphan, and perhaps had a sad life before being taken in by the Sisters at the Abbey, but could she have been wicked? Perhaps the answer lies in the history of the song. Added for the movie version (along with "I Have Confidence"), it was written solely by Richard Rogers, as lyricist Oscar Hammerstein had died soon after completing the original music. For this production, recognizing the unusual feel but still wanting to use the song, director Jack O’Brien took the liberty of “doing a little pumice work on it, taking the rough edges off” the lyrics. It is much more romantic the new way.
The highlight of Act II is the performance of the “Von Trapp Family Singers”, as arranged by Max for the Saltzberg Festival. The audience in the theater is brought into the story by becoming the festival audience, and gets to hear and applaud the family singing "Do-Re-Mi," "So Long, Farewell," and the wonderful and poignant "Edelweiss." (In the film, when Georg breaks down singing it, Maria takes over, and urges the audience to join in to show their love for their homeland, Austria. Sadly, however, we were not asked to do the same…)
The set pieces, by Scenic Designer Douglas W. Schmidt, are amazing, recreating the Von Trapp Mansion, the Nonnberg Abbey, and the mountains of Austria with beautiful elegance. The large Nazi banners behind the family at the festival, however, were a bit shocking, but a fitting reminder of what was at stake for the family, their country, and of course, the world. The Sound of Music is playing through Sunday, November 6, at the Community Center Theater in downtown Sacramento. At nearly three hours (with a 20 minute intermission) it may be a bit much for younger children to sit through, but perfectly appropriate for all ages. It is a wonderful new way to see the oh-so-familiar story for fans of the movie. For tickets and information see www.CaliforniaMusicalTheatre.com.
Ken Kiunke 10/28/2016
Originally published in GoldCountryMarketing.com. Reprintable with attribution to Gold Country Marketing and Ken Kiunke
Kerstin Anderson as Maria with the Von Trapp kids
Cinderella could be considered Rodgers and Hammerstein’s lost musical, but it is one of my favorites. Unlike their other shows, it was written specifically for television, and the original 1957 version starred Julie Andrews in the title role. Due to the limited technology at the time, the only surviving version of the live broadcast is a black and white Kinescope. Fortunately, it was redone in 1965, starring Lesley Ann Warren, with Ginger Rogers, Walter Pidgeon, and Celeste Holm, and, like The Wizard of Oz, it became and annual TV event for a while. I remember seeing it when I was a child, and have seen that version several times since. It was redone for television again in 1997 with Brandy and Whitney Houston, before it was finally brought to Broadway in 2013. As it was re-adapted over the years, multiple changes were made to the story, characters, and even the songs, as leftover tunes from other Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals were adapted to the story. So in addition to being lost in the shuffle of the other great works by the team, it has been “messed with” so much that by now, it is almost a completely different version!
What remains from the original is the great collection of songs, which rivals their best musicals, including Oklahoma!, The Sound Of Music, The King and I, and the rest. The latest version, which features a new book based in Hammerstein’s original and written by Douglas Carter Beane, opened at Broadway Sacramento on Tuesday night and runs until Sunday, May 17, at the Community Center Theater, closing the 2014-15 season.
The musical Cinderella, besides being overshadowed by Rodgers and Hammerstein’s great stage shows, is of course also overshadowed by the Disney animated version, which is itself a wonderful film, and the one everyone thinks of as “The” Cinderella. Add in the 2015 Kenneth Branagh (also Disney) movie to the mix, and you can see how this version would get lost. Hopefully, this stage revival will bring more attention to all there is to love about this show.
Everyone knows the basic story of the girl and her mean stepmother, her clumsy unattractive stepsisters, the handsome prince, the ball, the fairy godmother, midnight, and the glass slipper. Ironically, this newest version is the most “Disneyfied” of them all, in that Cinderella has been transformed into one of those contemporary Disney princess heroines who is independent-minded, striving to learn about the world, and wanting to do good for her community. Those are all great things and valuable to teach our daughters, but it does take away some of the nostalgic charm of the old story of the downtrodden girl finding her salvation and true love so she can live happily ever after.
New characters such as Jean-Michel add a political element to the story, as he fights for the poor people losing their farms, and helps reform the prince as he becomes king and brings democracy to his kingdom. I did miss the King and Queen, who have been written out of this version. I liked the wise counsel they gave the prince in the original Rodgers and Hammerstein version. But here, Prince “Topher” (Andy Huntington Jones) is left on his own to figure things out, learning not to be misled by the devious Lord Chancellor Sebastian. Whether all that adds relevance of the story or just detracts from it is up to the viewer, I can take it either way. But the real treasure of the play is the music, and the first of the great songs is "My Own Little Corner" as Ella (aka Cinder-Ella), as played by Audrey Cardwell, sings of the small delights in imagination she finds in her sad fate as the put-upon stepdaughter. Cardwell has a lovely voice and plays well the part of the hopeful young lady who believes kindness can save the world and make everything right.
"The Prince Is Giving A Ball" is sung by the company, led by Lord Pinkerton (the powerful Antoine L. Smith), as we learn Prince Christopher Rupert etc. etc.’s real name, and introduces the humor in the production. We meet the Fairy Godmother, played just as powerfully by Kecia Lewis, in another fun song "Impossible," as she sends Ella off to the ball. Some of the most magical effects in the production occur when the crazy old lady Marie becomes the Fairy Godmother, and when Ella’s old dress becomes her beautiful gown. The musical highlight came with "Ten Minutes Ago" as Prince Topher and Ella dance at the ball and fall in love. Sung beautifully by Jones and Cardwell, this song should rank as one of the finest love songs in the Rodgers and Hammerstein collection.
As Act 2 opens, we are treated to more humor, in the form of the song "Stepsister’s Lament" sung by Charlotte, the funny Aymee Garcia, and the ladies of the court. This song features the refrain “Why would a fella want a girl like her, a girl who’s merely love-ly?” Though well-played here, I did enjoy it more when sung by both sisters in the original--but another change in this version is that sister Gabrielle (Kaitlyn Davidson) turns out to be a “nice stepsister” who’s after her own guy, rabble rouser Jean-Michel (David Andino).
Another musical highlight is when Ella, secretly back from the ball, “imagines” what it would have been like in the songs "When You’re Driving Through The Moonlight" and "A Lovely Night," and is joined by her stepsisters and stepmother Madame, played by Paige Williams. Two more great songs, and a nice moment when they all seem to be a family, before Madame and Charlotte go back to their former selves. The oddest part of this version is the addition of a second banquet thrown by the prince, where he actually meets Ella and they get to know each other, making the whole glass slipper part later seem rather superfluous, and tacked on to fit the legendary Cinderella tale. But we also get a “new” Rodgers and Hammerstein song, at least for this show, when Lewis brings an operatic soprano’s voice to "There’s Music In You." And finally the Prince and Ella sing "Do I Love You Because You’re Beautiful?," harmonizing beautifully as they prepare to live happily ever after and make the kingdom a wonderful place for all.
As usual, the costumes, sets, and choreography were terrific, and the big dance numbers were beautifully done. The opening night Sacramento crowd was very appreciative, and there was no hesitation to give a standing ovation to the whole cast. Cinderella plays at the Sacramento Community Theater through May 17. It is open to children as young as 4, and we saw several young princesses in attendance. The California Musical Theater opens its next season in November with Elf – The Broadway Musical, and in the meantime, the summertime Music Circus will present My Fair Lady opening June 9, with more great shows to follow. For tickets and information see www.CaliforniaMusicalTheatre.com.
Ken Kiunke 5/14/2015
Originally published in the Gold Country Times. Reprintable with attribution to the Gold Country Times and Ken Kiunke
Audrey Cardwell in her own little corner
Wicked – the untold story of the witches of Oz – opened at Broadway Sacramento on Wednesday night, and runs until Sunday, June 15 at the Community Center Theater, closing the 2013-14 season. Most people are aware that the show tells an alternate view of the three witches we meet in the 1939 Wizard of Oz movie, and is based on the novel by Gregory Maguire. But the heart of Wicked, if you delve into the ideas, is a reflection of the nature of “wickedness”, or by extension, evil.
The story is essentially that of a young woman who was born different, and whose very appearance repulsed not only the people who saw her, but even her own family. This young woman, however, grows up to be strong and sure of herself, and accepts that people shy away from her. She cares for her disabled sister, and has a mind that rises above the rejection she is shown. As she learns about the world she lives in, she sees injustice – not against herself, but on a minority who are being turned against by the powers she once respected. She takes up the cause of changing the course of history, but by challenging the powers that be, she is branded a threat, dangerous, and of course “wicked”. She feels love and compassion, and yet is looked on as an enemy who must be destroyed. You can see parallels in her story with some of the most notoriously evil people in our history – mass murderers like Stalin, Mao, and even Hitler. They started out seeing their people being victimized by greater powers, and rose to prominence by giving them hope and a dream for a better future. They all accomplished something, but when faced with opposition, they engaged in power struggles, scapegoating, and eventually mass murder of their own people to try to maintain their vision of greatness. They went from self-appointed heroes to the worst of villains in the course of history.
Our heroine in Wicked, Elphaba – also known as the Wicked Witch of the West – does not go nearly so far, of course. But she is portrayed in the original movie as a hateful and ugly hag who only delights in her own meanness and gaining power over the weak. All the people of Oz, including her own armies, revile her and rejoice in her and her sister’s deaths. In Wicked, however, she’s just a girl trying to do her best, and shows a heart much bigger than the “good witch” Glinda, or “Oz, the Great and Powerful”.
The story is a fascinating look at the Land Of Oz, and though it does not perfectly mesh with the oh-so-familiar Wizard Of Oz movie, it works very well as a companion piece. (For another alternate look at the witches and Wizard of Oz that does fit perfectly as a prequel, see the 2013 movie Oz The Great and Powerful with James Franco.)
The musical that grew out of Maguire’s book came to life in 2003 as created by Stephen Schwartz (music and lyrics) and Winnie Holtzman (book,) and brings the rather dark novel to life, reducing the story to show length, and adding a lot of humor to the tale. And of course some wonderful music.
The key roles are the polar opposite women, Elphaba and Galinda (later Glinda) who spend the show in a constant love/hate relationship that helps them each grow in her own way. Gina Beck is great as the shallow and popular Galinda – a kind of “Legally Blonde” girl of Oz, who first reviles, then pities, and then tries to help Elphaba become more like her. The interaction between the two carries the show, and both performers make their characters come alive and grow with the story. Beck shows off her comic timing in the song "Popular" as she tries to do a makeover on “Elphie”. Emma Hunton as Elphaba is the wonderful heart of the show. Her voice soars above her green skin and frumpy appearance. Though quite lovely in real life, she hides it well under her makeup and outfits, and her true beauty is slowly revealed to the audience, Galinda, and Fiyero, the leading man.
Fiyero is played by the graceful and handsome Nick Adams, whose voice blends well with both ladies, and has his best moment in "As Long As You’re Mine" with Hunton. Alison Fraser as Madame Morrible and Tom Flynn as the goat professor Dr. Dillamond are great fun. And I was pleasantly surprised to see Tim Kazurinsky as the Wizard. I remember him from the early eighties Saturday Night Live, and he has been in a lot of movies and TV as well. He did a great job as the insincere and fumbling Oz, and sang the part well.
It was fun seeing the various nods to the more familiar story as well – Dorothy, the Tin Man, the Lion and Scarecrow all show up in often unexpected ways - sometimes touchingly, and sometimes for laughs. The set pieces are beautiful, including the large 13 hour clock and Glinda’s sort of steampunk traveling bubble. The reception by the Sacramento crowd was very appreciative, and there was no hesitation to give a standing ovation to the whole cast, with the loudest cheers for Emma Hunton and Gina Beck. This wonderful production of Wicked plays at the Sacramento Community Theater through June 15th. The California Musical Theater opens its next season in November with Jersey Boys, and in the meantime, the summertime Music Circus will present A Chorus Line opening June 24, with more great shows to follow. For tickets and information see www.CaliforniaMusicalTheatre.com.
Ken Kiunke 5/31/2014
Originally published in the Gold Country Times. Reprintable with attribution to the Gold Country Times and Ken Kiunke
Emma Hunton as Elphaba