The Sound of Music

Capitol Theatre, Sydney, December 17.

A new production of Fiddler on the Roof has just opened in New York, directed by Broadway revival rainmaker Bartlett Sher. The musical, created in 1964, tells of the existential threat faced by a community of Jews in Imperial Russia, whom we see living their lives much as their ancestors did – Tradition! – while having to face the realities of contemporary society and politics. At the end we see them forced to leave their home of Anatevka to go – where?

Sher gave Fiddler a silent frame that, very briefly, brings the mass exoduses of today to mind. He hasn’t changed the work but has given it a context. What happened to Tevye’s community isn’t locked away safely in the past. “We have to ask questions about where we are now,” Sher told The New York Times. Sher’s touch has also been applied to revered Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals including South Pacific and The King and I, both of which have dark themes embedded within. Sher is able to stage a traditional version while reminding audiences that these shows aren’t entirely about washing a man right out of your hair and whistling a happy tune, no matter how tenaciously the glow of nostalgia hangs around them.


Amy Lehpamer, left, with the von Trapp children in The Sound of Music. Photo: James Morgan

In The Sound of Music there are raindrops on roses, whiskers on kittens, bright copper kettles and Nazis at the door. In other words, there is, in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s last work a dark counterpoint that gives weight, texture and dramatic consequence to songs of unmatched sweetness.

It is wondrous just how lacking in cynicism, irony and guile the show’s most beloved songs are, but The Sound of Music is not all Do-Re-Mi, or shouldn’t be. It doesn’t seem enough in 2015 to give the impression the Nazis were a bunch of cartoonish heavies. One of the greatest evils of the 20th or any century is trivialised and the courage of the von Trapp family rendered far less affecting than it should be. The production now showing in Sydney, directed by Jeremy Sams, could have been teleported from 1959, when The Sound of Music conquered its first generation of admirers.

It’s true that Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse’s book is perilously thin at times, in this respect and others, but in this production the flaws are magnified rather than resolved. It also doesn’t help that the sets, based on those for the 2006 London revival, have a strong whiff of having been reduced for ease of touring. When the Austrian alps are represented by an odd sloping disc, low-lying bumps and a lurid sunset you’re not exactly feeling the grandeur.

The old-school complacency is all the more frustrating because the show is blessed with some blazing performances. The enchanting Maria of Amy Lehpamer, Jacqueline Dark’s bounteous Mother Abbess and the eye-wateringly talented bunch of children raise the roof and save the day.


Amy Lehpamer as Maria in The Sound of Music. Photo: James Morgan

In Lehpamer’s hands the novice nun who brings music and love to an unhappy family is shiningly good without being a goody-goody. Forthright and sensible but with girlhood not long behind her, Maria is bursting with untapped promise. Lehpamer sings with delectable warmth, ease and clarity, makes the familiar sound fresh and gives backbone to songs that need a firm hand if they are not to descend into whimsy.

On opening night there was entrance applause for Cameron Daddo, who plays the widowed Captain von Trapp; Marina Prior, who is the Captain’s intended, Baroness Schraeder; and veteran Lorraine Bayly (Frau Schmidt). None greeted Lehpamer, who is well known to music-theatre aficionados but – obviously – not so much to a wider public. She has it in her to be Australia’s next big music-theatre star and this role should do the trick.

Most usually seen on the opera stage, where she is a great favourite, Dark plays the Abbess with a twinkly eye and enormous generosity of spirit and voice. What luxury casting. One could have predicted she’d hit Climb Ev’ry Mountain out of the park and so she does, not as a barnstorming anthem but a passionate invocation.

As for the children, the opening night girls and boys were all adorable (two more groups alternate in these roles) but if one must play favourites, Nakita Clarke as the baby of the family, Gretl, would take the prize. The others – Jude Padden-Row as Friedrich, Savannah Clarke (Nakita’s sister) as Louise, Louis Fontaine as Kurt, Madison Russo as Brigitta and Erica Giles as Marta – are also blissfully at ease on stage and there are some impressive voices among them. As the “sixteen going on seventeen” oldest sister Leisel, Stefanie Jones is pleasingly unaffected and has a fine, true soprano.

Prior makes the pragmatic Baroness Schraeder nuanced and interesting but Daddo isn’t up to the task of papering over some very dodgy transitions in the book. Because he doesn’t convey megawatts of authority, several underwritten turning points in the musical are put under a very revealing light. The Captain’s turnaround from distant martinet to caring father is achieved with a handful of harsh words from Maria and his declaration of love for the novice nun happens moments after Baroness Schraeder gives him back his ring. Daddo looks amazingly handsome but there is, sadly, little sizzle between him and Lepahmer of the kind that might have prepared us for this outcome.

The audience has to join the dots and take that relationship on trust because it’s not really there on stage. The political backdrop is similarly soft-edged and experienced at a safe distance despite the display of swastikas and men in uniform. I couldn’t help but compare this blandness with the shiver of horror John Bell evoked in his direction of Tosca for Opera Australia in 2013, which was set during the Nazi occupation of Rome. It’s all in the detail. It’s about making every new audience, every new generation, understand and believe in every aspect of a work, not just the raindrops on roses.

The Sound of Music runs in Sydney until February 28. Brisbane from March 11, Melbourne from May 13, Adelaide from August 9.

A version of this review first appeared in The Australian on December 21.

Bernadette Peters in Concert

Theatre Royal, Sydney, April 2

“ISN’T it bliss? Don’t you approve?” These lyrics from Stephen Sondheim’s Send in the Clowns, from A Little Night Music, could not be more apposite when it comes to the Bernadette Peters effect: her concert is indeed bliss and yes, the audience approves to the point of adoration.

Bernadette Peters during her Sydney concert. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Bernadette Peters during her Sydney concert. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

As for those question marks, there are none of any consequence. Let’s just say they are a lovely indication that despite her standing as Broadway royalty – and she looks it, with that form-fitting sparkly gown and riot of bronze curls – Peters exudes no sense of entitlement. She is warm, low-key and friendly, keeping the chat light and easy and letting the songs speak for themselves.

Most importantly, she knows exactly how to use that distinctive, sexily husky voice to best advantage. While still having a youthful cast it now sounds quite a delicate instrument, even fragile at times, but the payoff is a deeply intimate connection with the music. Peters makes choices that give fresh impetus to songs heard hundreds of times – and sung by her hundreds of times, when we’re talking about music from her Broadway shows.

Songs others might bring to a full-throated conclusion are crowned with a finely wrought thread of sound, tempos are sometimes contemplatively slow and she brings to the concert stage her skills as an actress, shaping phrases with scrupulous, insightful attention to meaning as well as form. And she never, ever over-sings. Peters’s taste is exemplary.

Sondheim’s work dominates the 90-minute concert, as it does so many concerts. But Peters sings this material by right, having had a long and close association with the composer and lyricist. In her most recent Broadway appearance (2011) Peters played Sally in Follies, from which she sings In Buddy’s Eyes and the sublime Losing My Mind. Into the Woods (Children Will Listen, No One is Alone), and songs from Anyone Can Whistle and Company are also on the set list.

Less expected are lovely interpretations of songs usually sung by men: Johanna from Sweeney Todd, Some Enchanted Evening from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific, and Peter Allen’s If You Were Wondering, the last with adapted lyrics. Even more enchanting is Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Mister Snow from Carousel, a lilting, sweetly optimistic song from one of the greatest of all musicals.

Peters is accompanied by a mostly local 11-member band directed by a frequent colleague, the vastly experienced conductor and composer Marvin Laird. The Australian Stage Orchestra, as it is dubbed, got off to a very ordinary start on Wednesday, which may be why Peters’s opening number, Let Me Entertain You from Gypsy, was her weakest. There was also some unacceptable flubbing. The ensemble is an excellent one in theory and once things settled down it provided skilful backing. It appeared, however, to need more practice than it got before Peter’s first performance.

Gold Coast, tonight (April 5); Melbourne, Monday and Tuesday.

This review first appeared in The Australian on April 4.