The Hills Are Alive

Nothing to sing about: Jessica Bogart as Maria
Bruce Johnson

at Ordway Center for the Performing Arts
through December 30

It was just over two months ago that Werner von Trapp died at the age of 91; even more remarkable than the fact that one of Georg von Trapp's singing children had so recently been roaming the earth was the news that three of Werner's sisters are still alive. If all of that is complete gibberish to you, you're one of the few to have escaped the long cultural shadow cast by The Sound of Music, Rodgers & Hammerstein's iconic musical and the 1965 screen version it spawned.

If this production at the Ordway were your introduction, you'd probably wonder what all the fuss was about. At its best, the show is crammed with familiar, infectious tunes, along with a leading-lady role just waiting for a magnetic musical performer to make her own (see: Julie Andrews). Here it comes across unfocused and surprisingly leaden, even by the all-ages standards of a holiday offering.

The action opens in an Austrian convent, where young Maria (Jessica Bogart), yet to finalize her commitment to the religious life, is having a hard time fitting in due to her predilection for outspokenness and love of music. Our primary evidence of the latter is the title song, though it makes a less-than-convincing case for Maria's musicality. Bogart's voice in this early going lacks distinction, and the orchestration is muddy and verges on listless.

Our fortunes improve with the presence of Mother Abbess (Susan Pierson); Pierson has a strong, sweeping voice that lends a note of wistful passion to "My Favorite Things." Soon enough she's off the scene, however, having sent Maria off to work as governess for the von Trapps, a brood of seven children headed by the widower Georg (Matthew Ashford), a retired naval captain who seems to have taken a permanent seat on a ramrod at some point in his seafaring career.

Maria sets about winning over the recalcitrant brats by introducing them to the many pleasures of the major scale ("Do-Re-Mi," natch). When we first met them, they exhibited a decidedly Teutonic penchant for military-style marching, but this is before the central plot distinction comes across. This is the eve of the Anschluss, and our varied heroes are about to be annexed by the Nazis.

Phil Kilbourne injects a pleasing note of oily snark as a family friend who catches the children singing with Maria, then sees visions of fortune as impresario to a sort of prewar, Alpine version of the Osmonds. Kilbourne also plays one part of a triangle with Georg and his squeeze Elsa (Christine Toy Johnson) during a spry "How Can Love Survive." But it's around here that the wheels start to come off. Probably the last cohesive stretch is the children's ensemble number "So Long, Farewell," in which the kids' performance manages to overcome the improbability that a bunch of posh dinner guests are willing to endure a protracted child act before sitting down to their suppers.

Maria decides to split the manse because of her attraction to Georg (or so we're told; the chemistry between Bogart and Ashford is as incendiary as a bucket of cold water), only to be sent back by the Mother Abbess in time to marry the big lug just before the Nazis attempt to clamp down on their happiness. But the orchestration has fallen into a pattern of flattening out the quiet passages while going tinny on the great swells, and it's dauntingly difficult to find refuge in the songs, the action, or the individual characters.

Wendy Knox directs this tepid and tentative work, two adjectives that rarely describe her typical approach with Frank Theatre. But this show's surplus of bland performances (except for the children, who all sharply carve out mini-characters and extract the most life from Bogart and Ashford) and meandering musical direction have dulled Knox's usual capacity for locating jagged surfaces in a work. Instead, we have an undeniably professional, if numbingly undistinguished, take on a classic. If you're really looking for the hills to be alive, best rent the movie.

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