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Regional Reviews: New Jersey

The Sound of Music
Paper Mill Playhouse
Review by Bob Rendell

Cáitlín Burke and Cast
Photo by Evan Zimmerman
The joyful holiday season has arrived at Paper Mill Playhouse with its beautifully and magnificently sung production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's beloved classic American musical The Sound of Music. It is certain to bring pleasure to holiday audiences.

Based on Maria Augusta von Trapp's memoir "The Trapp Singers" and, set in 1938, this fictionalized musical adaptation recounts the story of the ebullient and undisciplined Maria Rainer, a postulant at Nonnberg Abbey. Doubting the suitability of Sisterhood for Maria, the Mother Abbess assigns her to the mansion of widowed Austrian naval captain Georg von Trapp where she is to serve as nanny to his seven children in order to open up her mind to consideration of more of life's possibilities.

While the relationship between Maria and the von Trapps burgeons, fascist Nazi Germany is in the process of invading and annexing Austria. The invaders demand that Captain von Trapp serve in the German navy. He is determined not to aid the Nazis in any manner whatsoever.

The book by playwrights Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse strongly espouses standing up for principles of freedom in the face of oppressive dictatorial rulers, and depicts the evil that engulfs those who accept and support such rulers whether because of ideology, venality or fear. Thus, while there is a plethora of family entertainment on stage, this is also an adult musical here which is not as saccharine as one might imagine, with plenty of food for thought for audiences of all ages. Do young people today know or care about the horrors of Nazism, religious hatred, and anti-Semitism? This may well be a good, and not overly scary, place to begin to teach them things that too many of us seem to have forgotten.

Ashley Blanchet brings charm and poise to the role of Maria. Her lovely renditions of the title song and "My Favorite Things" (sung with Cáitlín Burke as the Mother Abbess) are most pleasing to the ear. She was at her most charming during the curtain calls, and once she gets a chance to relax into her role, Blanchet will likely be an especially charming Maria. Graham Rowat is vivid, hearty and straightforward as the rigid Georg. Rowat delivers a gentle, heartfelt "Edelweiss." Prized as the last lyric written by the redoubtable Oscar Hammerstein, its lyrical, unforced loveliness makes it a charming coda to Hammerstein's superlative career.

Gavin Lee is impresario Max Detweiler, a cynic who is prepared to cooperate with the occupying Nazis in order that he might produce and profit from a folk music festival. By underplaying Detweiler's comedic gruffness, Lee allows the script's humor to flow realistically from the text. Emily Borromeo brings charm, subtlety and dimension to the role of Elsa Schraeder, von Trapp's fiancée. Her performances (sung with Rowat and Lee) of "How Can Love Survive" and "No Way to Stop It" are melodious, lively, and brimming with wit.

Analise Scarpaci brings a variety of colors to the role of Liesl, the oldest von Trapp child. Coleman Simmons as (next in line) Friedrich displays strong stage presence and generates applause with a thrilling high alto (I think) note. In fact, all of the von Trapp children are exceptionally well defined by their players (Jacey Sink, Cody Braverman, Tara Rajan, Austin Elle Fisher, Charlotte Sydney Harrington).

Director Mark Hoebee has provided a well acted and sung production. James Fouchard's scenic design lacks the richness and detail of Oliver Smith's original Tony-winning Broadway set. However, there is a very high, bell curve shaped basic set which provides the frame for an impressively large, visually attractive stained glass window backdrop employed for the abbey sequences. Catherine Zuber's costumes are impeccable. Both artists provided their designs for the 2013 Paper Mill production. Kelly James Tighe and Leon Dobkowski receive additional credits for scenery and costumes, respectively, for the current production.

It should be noted that this stage production is recommended to those who are already familiar with and fond of the popular 1965 movie version. There are key musical and dramatic elements of the musical which were cut from the movie which weakened the depiction of the depth and subtleties of the relationship between Georg and Elsa, and how their respective attitudes toward the Nazi occupation affected it. ("No Way to Stop It" and "How Can Love Survive, sung by Elsa, Max and Georg, are missing from the movie). Even the intro to "The Sound of Music" ("my day in the hills has come to an end I know ...") is not in the movie. Less essential is the loss of a third song, the pleasant "An Ordinary Couple." Added to the movie are "I Have Confidence" and "Something Good." Both the lyrics and music for the two new songs were written by Richard Rodgers as Hammerstein had passed away in 1961 shortly after the musical's opening. Although they are less essential to character and plot, and are inferior to the trios missing in action in the movie, they have long been included in the stage musical. "An Ordinary Couple" is no longer sung in the show, as "Something Good" has been slotted in as its replacement.

I've saved the best for last. For me, the highlights of the show are the live musical stage performances which are as thrillingly beautiful and powerful as one could ever hope to see and hear. Richard Rodgers brilliantly adapted the music of various cultures to his Broadway style (i.e., The King and I). However, I doubt if he ever did it better than with his liturgical Catholic Church music in The Sound of Music. From the beginning and continuing throughout the musical, it is a thrill to listen to this joyous music sung live so accurately and powerfully.

I have no idea how Cáitlín Burke (Mother Abbess) can deliver such beautiful operatic vocals live eight performances a week. You will not want to miss her unforgettably magnificent "Climb Ev'ry Mountain." In her duet with Blanchet on "My Favorite Things", Burke's charm is irresistible

The vocal contributions of Madeleine Doherty (Sister Berthe), Mary Illes (Sister Margaretta), Ariana Valdes (Sister Sophia), and the vocal chorus are exceptional. The 17-piece orchestra sharply conducted by Meghann Zervoulis Bate is an essential contributor to the musical excellence.

The Sound of Music is an almost three hour long adult Broadway musical that is appropriate and edifying for the entire family. However, it is long, a bit leisurely, and potentially a difficult sit for younger children. It would likely facilitate the enjoyment of younger children if they are able to attend matinee performances. Having noted that, let me hasten to add that this gloriously sung The Sound of Music is a holiday season treat for both adult and family audiences

The Sound of Music through January 1, 2023, at Paper Mill Playhouse, Brookside Drive, Millburn NJ. Performances are Wednesday - Sunday 7 pm.m/ Thursday, Saturday and Sunday 1:30 p.m. For tickets and information, please call the box office at 973-376-4343 or visit

Music by Richard Rodgers; lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II; book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse; directed by Mark Hoebee; choreographed by Kenny Ingram

Cast (in order of appearance): Ashley Blanchet (Maria); Cáitlín Burke (Mother Abbess); Madeleine Doherty (Sister Berthe); Mary Illes (Sister Margaretta); Ariana Valdes (Sister Sophia); Paul Slade Smith (Franz); Graham Rowat (Captain von Trapp); Stacia Fernandez (Frau Schmidt); Analise Scarpaci (Liesl); Coleman Simmons (Friedrich); Jacey Sink (Louisa); Cody Braverman (Kurt); Tara Rajan (Brigitta); Austin Elle Fisher (Marta); Charlotte Sydney Harrington (Gretl); Andrew Alstat (Rolf); Emily Borromeo (Elsa Schraeder); Gavin Lee (Max); Christopher Gurr (Herr Zeller); Eric Michael Gillett (Baron Elberfeld); Kayleen Seidl (Postulant); Mark Banik (Admiral von Schreiber)

Additional Ensemble: Griffin Binnicker; Dean Cestari; Brittany Conigatti; Nick Davis; Vincent DiPeri; Gina Hanzlik; Katie Horner; Meredith Lustig; Christine Taylor Price; Chandler Reeves; Emily Royer; Kai B. White