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'The Sound of Music' shines at Shea's

If you see "The Sound of Music" at Shea's Performing Arts Center, you'll get a surprise. The star of the show isn't Maria.

The star is the scenic designer. Let's look up his name: Douglas W. Schmidt.

I have never seen sets this beautiful. In the final scene, as the Von Trapps are hiding at the abbey, Maria's former home, and dodging the Nazis who are pursuing them, suspense took a back seat. All I wanted to do was admire the vista. The statue of an angel loomed over a stone terrace, and you could look down the mountain and see the town's twinkling lights.

Also ingenious was the church where Maria is married, to the accompaniment of Gregorian chant. And Captain von Trapp's house! Tall windows show breathtaking purple, blue and golden mountains.

Wisely, the folks behind this touring production of "The Sound of Music" don't try to reinvent this musical, a hit now for almost 60 years. If you don't think you'll like the show, if you're wary of its sweetness, don't go. This production wouldn't convert you. Though shining and new, it embraces tradition.

And why not? Opening night saw Shea's packed to its gilded ceiling. Plus, "The Sound of Music" wouldn't work any other way. It needs that certain framework -- traditional Catholicism, faith and family, the approach of World War II. Change any of these basics, and it wouldn't make sense.

At the same time, though most of us know the show from the movie, you can't (nor should you) expect a cookie-cutter reproduction. "The Sound of Music" began on the stage. We owe the musical to Mary Martin, the first Maria. She and her husband got Rodgers and Hammerstein to write it. They also raised the money to buy the rights to the story from the German company that owned them.

Listen to Mary Martin's performance, and you'll find she is earthier than the more delicate Julie Andrews. Our Maria this time around, Charlotte Maltby, is also earthier. She is gangly, as a girl can be -- all knees and elbows. Her approach takes getting used to. So does her voice, which veers toward modern Broadway. You do get used to her, though, and she's good.

The opening night audience saw an understudy, Christopher Carl, as Captain von Trapp. He looked the part of the handsome naval officer but he was a little old for Maria, and theatrical. His charm surfaced only at the end, when the family was singing "Edelweiss" at the music festival, against huge swastika banners. (When it comes to the Nazi menace, this production pulls no punches.)

The crowd loved Melody Betts as a full-voiced Mother Abbess. I found her a tad too strident and impatient in the opening scene, which should convey the timeless beauty of the abbey. But she did justice to "Climb Every Mountain." And in "My Favorite Things," she shows her sense of humor. Unlike in the movie, she and Maria sing that song together behind the convent walls.

If you're used to the movie, some songs pop up when you don't expect them. I see why "The Lonely Goatherd" might not have worked as a puppet show -- folks in the back balcony would not have been able to see it. But a few other changes puzzled me. I wish we could have heard "Edelweiss" before that final scene, when things are tense, and you can't quite enjoy it.

I also don't see the wisdom in changing the lyrics to "Something Good." It's nice they included that song, which appeared in the movie but not the original stage production. But the words you hear in the movie are so touching.

On the other hand, the production happily includes a couple of songs written for the stage show that aren't heard in the movie. The uptempo "No Way To Stop It" and the arch "How Can Love Survive" cut the sweetness a little. They also fill out the part of the Baroness (Teri Hansen) a character everyone enjoys. It is perhaps because of these songs that the Baroness and Max Detweiler (Merwin Foard) appear as more overtly conniving than in the film. But you love them all the same.

The children are terrific -- natural and not cloying. Paige Silvester is an appealing Liesl. She and Rolf (Austin Colby) took unusual turns in "Sixteen Going On Seventeen." The dance was a kick, and genuinely affecting.

The production flows seamlessly -- the set changes, the music, everything. It doesn't drag, even in the second half. That's high praise.


3.5 stars (out of four)

"The Sound of Music"

When: 7:30 p.m. March 29 and 30, 8 p.m. March 31, 2 and 8 p.m. April 1 and 2 and 7 p.m. April 2.

Where: Shea's Performing Arts Center, 646 Main St.

Tickets: $32-$72


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