To focus on a single sense in Lyric Opera of Chicago’s second annual Broadway dalliance is a gross injustice to its breathtaking production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “The Sound of Music.”
It’s akin to crediting Michael Jordan’s basketball accomplishments to just the shoes.
This not-to-be missed staging of arguably the most well-known musical in the American canon is so much more than its magical sound. Indeed, this production ought to be renamed “The Soul of Music” for the multitude of emotions it induces.
Of course it all begins, as musicals must, with the music. In addition to a stellar cast featuring Broadway’s Jenn Gambatese as Maria, film star Billy Zane as Captain Georg Von Trapp and opera star Christine Brewer as Mother Abbess, 37 members of the Lyric Opera Orchestra perform with a 25-member choral ensemble, which includes 12 members of the Lyric Opera Chorus. The result is music befitting Chicago’s Civic Opera House, with every musical mountain undeniably well-climbed.
The auditory is well-complemented by visuals. Stunning sets turn a room on Wacker Drive into pre-World War II Europe. The omnipresent Austrian Alps surround intricately gorgeous and functionally mobile interior and exterior settings as Maria morphs from wannabe nun to governess to young bride and mother. A full show synopsis is found here.
The depth of Director Marc Bruni’s work is simultaneously true to both the core of the 1959 Broadway winner of eight Tony Awards and 1965’s iconic film version. Lyric’s production includes two songs written by Rodgers for the film. Gambatese flawlessly uses the first, “I Have Confidence,” to catapult her Maria into the spotlight, while her lovely duet with Zane in the second, “Something Good,” punctuates the irresistible love story.
Gorgeously operatic nuns (kudos to Brewer for a memorable “Climb Every Mountain” and Erin Elizabeth Smith, Susan Moniz and Cory Goodrich who join with her in “(How Do You Solve a Problem Like) Maria”); the best possible combination of Von Trapp kids available (nod to Brady Tutton for perfect tone on that “So Long, Farewell” high G); a professional Liesl (Betsy Farrar) and Rolf (Zach Sorrow) to sweetly intone “Sixteen Going on Seventeen”…truly this Lyric production has it all.
And tying it together, providing that intangible element allowing this “Music” to really sing, is Gambatese’s brilliant portrayal of Maria. Not only does she deliver effortless vocals and lithe dance along with her undeniable beauty, Gambatese’s Maria makes the oxymoronic believable. She is at once pious and worldly, young while mature, vulnerable yet courageous and strong beyond measure in a time and place where chauvinism and fear prevail.
While the lovely “I Have Confidence” features Maria trying to persuade herself before entering the Von Trapp estate, Gambatese assures every member of the audience (along with one Austrian naval captain) of Maria’s undeniable guts with her late Act One verbal beat down of the captain for his failure to know and love his children.
It’s the strength shown in this scene that seals the captain’s love for her. And while most observers (including Brigitta Von Trapp) focus on the subsequent dance of the Ländler illustrating Maria’s love for Georg, Gambatese makes it clear in this production that the second scene never could have happened without the first.
Similarly, when the couple return from their honeymoon to orders for Von Trapp to report to the navy of the Third Reich, Maria concurrently defers to her husband’s decision while undoubtedly making the decision for the family herself.
These are but two examples of how Lyric’s Maria uniquely leads this Von Trapp family. She does it by way of the sensational New York University graduate and Broadway star who will be owning this Chicago stage through May 25.
While this company premiere is the second work in Lyric’s American Musical Theater Initiative (it launched last season with a new production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma!”), this production is second to none.
The hills are unquestionably alive with the sound of music, and lucky patrons of this production will emerge a little more so, as well.
Lyric Opera of Chicago’s production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “The Sound of Music” runs through May 25 at the Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive. Tickets start at $29 and are available now online or at 312-827-5600.
Barry Reszel is a Libertyville-based writer, at-home dad and producer of a new website devoted to musical theater in Chicago and its suburbs: chicagolandmusicaltheatre.com.