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A reluctant critic's first impressions of 'The Sound of Music'

Most critics enter every new experience hoping to have their preconceptions shattered.

That was my sincere hope Friday night as I entered Shea's Performing Arts Center, where a touring production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "The Sound of Music" was midway through its run.

After seeing this show for the first time, a few of those preconceptions have softened, but most remain intact.

My instincts about the show, which unforgivably I had never seen in any form other than excerpted fragments and YouTube clips, told me to stay away. For one thing, I found the very idea of the von Trapp children and their confectionary precociousness off-putting. For another, all those nuns triggered something unpleasant about my Catholic upbringing.

Neither of these are good excuses.

But I was also deterred by the story's rigid reinforcement of feminine and masculine norms: A tortured girl discovers that her true purpose in life is to "rescue" a wealthy man by caring for him and his children and dutifully following his instructions, such as which dress she should wear to dinner.

Not exactly progressive stuff, but every once in a while, a throwback can serve to remind us of how far we've come since the '60s.

Jack O'Brien's bright and beautifully designed production, led by the charming Charlotte Maltby, does its best to turn Maria and Captain von Trapp into something more than caricatures. This works with the multihued Maria, though Nichols Rodriguez's Captain is just a walking blob of testosterone. O'Brien also ably handles what, depending on the angle of attack, could be the most sexist song in musical theater history: "Sixteen Going on Seventeen."

'The Sound of Music' shines at Shea's

Put the hackneyed plot aside, as you should, and the experience becomes much more enjoyable.

For good reason, the score of "The Sound of Music" is one of the most treasured and influential of the 20th century. What pop culture has done to "The Sound of Music," with its million permutations on "My Favorite Things," its endless recycling of "Do-Re-Mi" and its collaging and remixing of other classics, is much more interesting than the original material.

Still, it is a worthwhile exercise to have a look at the original DNA from which so many cultural products have been constructed. As in "South Pacific" and "The King and I," there is real joy to be wrought from the experience if you're able to treat the context for the music as an anachronistic backdrop rather than an essential piece of the show.

The pure version of the title song -- more emotionally complex than I expected -- was a revelation. As was "My Favorite Things," a song that can be read as a radical critique of religious institutions that suppress innate human desires. It becomes more radical because it is sung by two women in habits.

As for those von Trapp kids, I regret that seeing them in context did not have the heart-melting effect on me that it has had on so many millions of others. But hey, maybe that's my problem.

It's clear that the enduring power of "The Sound of Music" flows from the ingenuity of its score, which is unimpeachable. I'm willing to grant that while the rest of the show barely registers, the music is good enough to serve as a saving grace.

After this long-overdue look, I'll be glad to return to enjoying the "Sound of Music" as I think it's best digested: in pieces.



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