THEATER REVIEW: ‘Sound of Music’ comes alive in fresh take at Asolo Rep

Jay Handelman
Maddie Shea Baldwin, third from right, as Maria with the young stars of "The Sound of Music" at Asolo Repertory Theatre. [PROVIDED BY ASOLO REP / CLIFF ROLES]

‘The Sound of Music’: Music by Richard Rodgers, lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse. Directed and choreographed by Josh Rhodes. Reviewed Nov. 16, Asolo Repertory Theatre, 5555 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. Through Dec. 28. 941-351-8000;

I can’t say I was overwhelmingly excited when Michael Donald Edwards announced that Asolo Repertory Theatre would open its 61st season with a new production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s final musical, “The Sound of Music.”

After all, it has become as familiar to me, from countless community theater and professional touring productions, as the 1965 movie probably is to most other people. Who needed another version? I thought.

I may not have needed it, but I felt a wonderful sense of discovery in the impressive and beautifully sung production that opened Saturday, exactly 60 years to the day from the show’s Broadway debut. And it remains relevant to what’s happening in the world today.

That shouldn’t be surprising because this production is directed and choreographed by Josh Rhodes, who has brought vibrant and fresh approaches to his recent Asolo Rep productions of “Guys and Dolls” and “Evita.”

Rhodes goes for honesty, and his production, led by a transformative performance by Maddie Shea Baldwin as the new governess, Maria, features characters filled with genuine emotions, a cast of young children who are adorable but not cloying and voices that send those Richard Rodgers melodies soaring over the hills.

Just be aware that you’re not seeing the film on stage. There could be some shock to your system to hear “My Favorite Things” sung by Maria and the Mother Abbess instead of with the von Trapp children during a thunderstorm (when they sing “The Lonely Goatherd”). There are comically edgy songs from the stage show that were cut from the film, and other numbers (“I Have Confidence” and “Something Good”) that Rodgers wrote on his own for the film that find their way to the stage.

I find the film a bit saccharine, while the stage musical has more bite in dealing with how Austrians fall in line with the Nazis due to political and peer pressure.

Both versions are inspiring as they tell of the blossoming love between Maria Rainier, a young postulant, who becomes a governess for the seven children of Austrian Navy Capt. George von Trapp, and how he stands up to the Nazis and leads his family to a different life.

Scenic designer Paul Tate DePoo II has created a tall curved wall that provides a backdrop for the Nonnberg Abbey and the von Trapp family home — a sense of protection from the many political and personal dangers in the world — with images of the alps painted into the stone and visible through the beautifully filtered lighting by Cory Pottak. Loren Shaw’s costumes also have a sense of elegance and formality that befits the story and characters.

Baldwin is the most rambunctious and playful Maria I’ve ever seen, clearly showing that she is still a child herself and eager for adventure and discovery. And we get to see her mature before our eyes as her feelings for the captain emerge during a beautifully realized dance to the “Landler,” designed as a kind of Austrian folk dance.

Baldwin and Tally Sessions as the captain begin innocently, just recalling the steps, but as their bodies twist and turn, you see the blush on their cheeks and a realization of deeper emotions in their eyes.

Sessions captures the changing feelings of the captain, who is first seen as stern and barking orders as if still in charge of a naval vessel. But the minute he unexpectedly hears his children sing, you can see cracks in the shell that has hardened around him since his wife’s death.

As Baroness Elsa Schraeder, who has her eyes on the captain, Kate Loprest is warmer than expected — probably too warm. We’re supposed to root for Maria and against Elsa, who usually has a sharper edge and a faux warmth toward the children. But Loprest

makes you believe she could be a substitute mother. Darren Matthias has a nice sarcastic tone as the concert promoter Max Detweiller, and Ann Morrison brings a touch of warmth as the housekeeper Frau Schmidt.

Liz McCartney has a gentle command as the Mother Abbess, who provides wise counsel to Maria (and all of us) about facing our fears, and her singing of the anthemic “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” is ravishing.

And then there are those seven kids — Sophie Lee Morris, Judah Immanuel, Tyler Gevas, Sophia Cavalluzzi, Raina Lynn Khatami, Allie McLaughlin and Cora Messer — who bring such joy to their songs (“Do Re Mi,” “So Long, Farewell”) and scenes. Morris, as the oldest daughter, Liesl, has a lovely grace about her and a sweet connection with Cole Doman as the delivery boy, Rolf, that leads to some nice moves on a bicycle.

Jordon Cunningham leads a 10-piece orchestra that resonates through the theater and reminds us why just about every number has become a classic. The songs and performers put you under a spell, carrying you along as if it’s all being told and sung for the first time. Please, just resist the temptation to sing along.