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New Theatre, Oxford

This is one of the best productions of The Sound of Music that I have ever seen on stage. The sets and costumes designed by Gary McCann are reasonably lavish and only minimally give in to the needs of a touring company; they are very evocative of the setting of the story in both time and place; and they are very appealing to the eye. If the hills are not as totally a slice of Maria’s mountain as they were on Broadway or years ago in the West End, they are still strongly evoked, are quite attractive enough, and are certainly alive with the sound of extremely well performed music. The directing, characterisation and total commitment of the cast are so strong and apt that instead of watching on automatic pilot because I know this material so well, I found myself compelled to pay great attention and enjoy all the differences from the film and the sensitively interpreted nuances of this original piece of music theatre.

Jan Hartley, an erstwhile Maria, is now playing the Mother Abbess and has the vocal heft and acting chops to make the role sympathetic, magisterial when necessary, and both wise and humane throughout. Her singing with Maria early on and then her rendition of “Climb Every Mountain” were memorable experiences. Andrew Lancel is attractive and appealing as Captain von Trapp; his acting is strong and suggests both the integrity of the man and his innate, suppressed romanticism. And who knew he could sing so well? The children are completely appealing; and Annie Holland’s Liesl and Kane Verrall’s Rolf nearly stopped the show the night I attended with their singing and dancing of “Sixteen Going On Seventeen”. So let’s hear it for the choreography of Bill Deamer too.

The great intelligence of this touring production is that it has simply gone back to the original 1959 scripting and structuring of the Broadway show that was built on the charms of Mary Martin. The structure, therefore, is not exactly as in the film we are all now so used to; thus the theatricality of the original show comes through very strongly. Though there is the odd visual reference to the film to make the audience comfortable (the nun’s wimples, for example; or the look given at times to Maria), the direction by Martin Connor takes us back to the first stage version in many ways both in the interpretation of the characters and in the theatricality it evokes. You will experience numbers like “My Favourite Things” and “The Lonely Goatherd” in the places where they originally belonged. You may miss some of the rearrangements and amplifications of the film; “Edelweiss” only appears at the very end in the festival scene; but the return to the original dramatic structuring seems to me strong and more apt for a live show. “Something Good” is interpolated from the movie version where it first appeared; but the songs “How Can Love Survive?” and “No Way to Stop It,” which were cut from the film, are back and delightfully well-performed by the brilliant Lucy Van Gasse as Elsa Schraeder and the hilarious Duncan Smith as Max Detweiler, restoring these roles as singing parts and giving back two fine and witty numbers to the audience. Even Frau Schmidt the housekeeper (Pippa Windslow) and Franz the butler (Jon de Ville) are more subtly played than in the film and restored to their original interpretations. The music direction by Kelvin Towse and the orchestral adaptations for pit band of ten are exemplary and exceedingly enjoyable.

But above all, this touring show centres on Maria; and classically trained Lucy O’Byrne is totally up to the demanding part both vocally and dramatically. Though sometimes made to look a bit like Julie Andrews, her appeal and interpretation are much more in the mould of the original Maria, Mary Martin, or even Petula Clark, who successfully undertook the part later. I think she could use a touch more forcefulness at certain moments; nevertheless her acting is the real goods; and her singing voice is wonderfully flexible, has great range, and is blessed with a timbre that makes her way with a song very appealing. She interprets the songs with musical energy and dramatic nuance and makes the role very much her own. I would not hesitate to go see her again if she undertakes another musical, an operetta or even an opera. She would make a superb Mimì in La Bohème. She has a strong stage presence and an ability to project the personality of Maria so completely that she, quite rightly, simply carries the entire show. Hearing her singing with Jan Hartley is wonderful because of their contrasting voices. She is never less than captivating throughout. At this stage of her development, she is without a shadow of a doubt a perfect choice to play Maria. I hope that this tour, which still has a while to run, comes somewhere near you. If you are a fan of Rodgers and Hammerstein and of their last musical together, you should try not to miss this very fine production. It will enhance and deepen what you think you know about the show.

So full praise for all the cast who work together with total conviction and commitment; but especial praise for Lucy O’Byrne who is simply a natural. As you can doubtless tell, I really enjoyed myself.

  • Musical
  • Book by Howard Lindsay and Russell Crouse from the memoir “The Trapp Family Singers” by Maria Augusta von Trapp
  • Directed by Martin Connor
  • Lyrics: Oscar Hammerstein II
  • Choreographer: Bill Deamer
  • Music: Richard Rodgers
  • Cast Includes: Lucy O’Byrne, Jan Hartley, Andrew Lancel, Annie Holland, Kane Verrall, Lucy van Gasse, Duncan Smith
  • New Theatre, Oxford
  • At the New Theatre, Oxford 6 – 10 September 2016 and then continuing to tour
  • Review by Mel Cooper
  • 7 September 2016

About The Author

Reviewer (UK)

Canadian-born Mel Cooper first came to the UK to study English Literature at Oxford University and stayed. He was captivated by the culture and history of Britain, which he found to be a welcoming and tolerant country. After working in highly illustrated, non-fiction publishing for over a decade, he founded and edited the magazine Opera Now. Since then he has worked as a consultant to the Japanese broadcaster NHK, a broadcaster on British Satellite Broadcasting, a maker of audio shows and arts critic for several airlines, and as one of the team that started Britain’s first commercial classical music radio station, Classic FM, on which he was both a classical music DJ and creator and presenter of shows like Classic America and Authentic Performance. Throughout this period, he also lectured in music and literature in London and Oxford and published short stories in Canada. After working with the Genesis Foundation on helping to fund arts projects, he continues to write, review and lecture on music and literature. His first novel has just been published as an e-book. The title is City of Dreams. It is the first volume of a projected saga called The Dream Bearers. You can find the Kindle version of the book on Amazon.

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