The Sound of Music" remains the enigma of the modern musical theater. Saddled with a dull and surprisingly uneventful book by Howard Lindsay and Russell Crouse (based on "The Trapp Family Singers" by Maria Augusta Trapp), melodic but also precociously reverential music by Richard Rodgers; the most sentimental and naive lyrics Oscar Hammerstein II ever wrote, and virtually no dancing at all, this musical has nevertheless continued to charm literally millions of people.
It is the presumably true, yet syrupy, tale of a young postulant, Maria Rainer who, unable to stay off the yodel-inducing Alps, is told by the Mother Abbess to temporarily kick the habit and try being a governess to seven little robots at the estate of Austrian Army Captain Georg von Trapp. That is until such time when she can decide on her true calling, either to romp in the high hills or return to the hallowed halls. The good/bad news comes from the Mother Abbess, as portrayed and sung in the Paper Mill production by Meg Bussert with a likable formidableness primed to "Climb Every Mountain."
There is a secondary plot concerning Elsa (Donna English) the other woman who, not pleased by the Captain’s anti-Nazi sympathies, or by the Alpine antics of the seven little Trapps, vanishes without regrets. Although her time on stage is short, English holds it with as much effortless style as she commits to "How Can Love Survive," and "No Way to Stop It," two of the lesser known but haunting and plot-driven songs in the score. The primary romance, however, concerns Maria and Georg, who discover they love each other despite there being no plot device to inspire or support such a thing.
Maria is played with plenty of spunk by Amanda Watkins, who manages to make us care what’s happening when she is on stage. Making her Paper Mill debut, but with plenty of Broadway and regional credits, Watkins has no difficulty charming either the Trapp children or us with such enduring sing-a-longs as "My Favorite Things," "Do Re Mi," and "The Lonely Goatherd." Aside from the demands on her lovely and strong soprano voice, Watkins has her work cut out keeping the show moving by teaching the children the scale, acquiring the respect of the servants, out-sewing Scarlett O’Hara, and gaining the respect of the Captain by refusing to whistle his tune.
In this production, this is a Maria who doesn’t find it easy to get any feedback from the Captain, as perfunctorily acted as if he would rather be almost anywhere but there by a decidedly uninvolved Robert Cuccioli. It is a shame that he only appears involved when displaying the Captain’s psychologically abusive behavior toward the children. Otherwise, we sorely miss the crust and the continental affectation that the role adds to the overriding mush.
Ed Dixon is adroitly flippant as Max, the ever-witty, all-knowing agent-about-town. Elizabeth Lundberg, as Liesle, does her best to make the kiss and tell teenager at least remotely believable. The other children, as expected, display the obligatory cutes. Liesle’s schizophrenic boy-friend Rolf is played with appropriately loathsome warmth by Mark Willett.
Public sentiment runs so high in favor of the musical and the film version as well, that one rather famous critic, after writing an insightfully negative review, is reputed to have lost her position with a popular magazine when outraged subscribers threatened not to renew. So as not to provoke any wrath, allow me to submit that a little dramatic tension does happen about five minutes before the end of the show when the entire Trapp family is forced to flee the Nazis and head for the hills. All the technical credits are up to the generally high standard of the Paper Mill. Before I made for the hills, I would have to admit that, despite a leading man who wasn’t there, director James Brennan has staged a tolerable and occasionally rewarding version of this kitsch classic.
The Sound of Music, Paper Mill, Brookside Drive, Millburn, 973-376-4343. $30 to $67. Performances to December 14.