In directing Cultural Arts Theatre's production, director D.J. Queenan wisely chose to cast the best singers available and let the acting work itself out, rather than the other way around.
The Sound of Music is unusual in that the entire production depends on the casting of a single character: Maria, young nun-turned-governess to the Von Trapp family. Because Maria is onstage virtually the entire time and is the only fully-drawn character in the script, a casting flub here is catastrophic.
Queenan is fortunate that Stefanie Selai was available for the role. Not to say there arenít other talented young women in town who could also handle it, but there isnít one who can match Selai's powerful, professionally trained voice and who can so believably combine Mariaís youthful energy with the strong maternal instinct the character must have to bond so quickly and deeply with seven children not her own.
Ah, and what of those zany Von Trapp kids? In descending order of age they are: Lauren Fruits (Liesl), Daniel Wilson (Friederich), Eve Butler (Louisa), Cassidy Tootle (Brigitta), Zach Logan (Kurt), Blakely Wall (Marta) and tiny Bailey Keith as Gretl. Each brings a unique aspect to his or her role, and all seven work well together. Mark Rand solidly plays the largely thankless role of their widowed father, Captain Von Trapp.
A wonderful added treat involves the nuns of Maria's abbey. Queenan lets the sisters have the stage to themselves for some strikingly choreographed set-piece numbers, all sung in Latin.
Together the nuns sing like -- well, they sing like angels, and I just can't say enough about the warmly enveloping singing voice of Tressa Woodard as the Reverend Mother herself.
For those whoíve only seen the hit 1965 film, the stage version features a twist. I wonít give it away, but it involves the confrontation between Capt. Von Trapp and Lieslís paramour Rolf (richly played and sung by Kyle Merritt, a performer sophisticated beyond his years).
For some reason, the first quarter of this show was excruciatingly slow, with actors, lights and musicians all a half-beat behind on their cues (though to be fair, I saw the show the night after it opened, traditionally the lowest-energy performance of any theatrical run).
The production didn't take off until Ray Ellis hit the stage as the dryly humorous Uncle Max. Ellis' focused presence and comic gusto was the catalyst to wake the cast out of their collective slumber. Literally the moment Ellis walked onstage you could feel the intensity level in the building rise. Thereís no explanation for this phenomenon, nor is there anything else like it in the world. Itís the magic of live theatre, and itís why we keep coming back.
I'm old-school about casting. Sure, a good actor is a good actor regardless of what they look like, but the audience also must be able to willingly suspend disbelief.
So I admit I became distracted when a group of "Nazis" in this show included two African-Americans and an Asian -- truly absurd if one is concerned with historical accuracy. Still, the city funded this production, so Queenan can hardly be faulted for erring on the side of inclusion by indulging in the vogue for ethnicity-blind casting.
Two more technical notes:
One, the first act was poorly lit, with a spectrum ranging from soft white to cool white to operating-room white. Not until the second act were warm colors introduced to the palette. I have to think that the harsh, clinical lighting in the first act helped sap the energy of the performers and contributed to their sluggishness.
And two, some performers -- perhaps deceived by the comparatively intimate black box setting -- do not project enough to be heard over the drone of S.P.A.C.E.'s heating and air system.
But those are minor quibbles, each of which can easily be addressed in time for the remaining two weeks of the run.
Performances of The Sound of Music are set for March 31 and April 1, 7 and 8 at 8 p.m. and April 2 at 3 p.m. in the Black Box @ SPACE, 9 W. Henry St. Tickets are $15 for adults and $10 for children and students. Call 651-6783.