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From the Very Beginning, 'The Sound of Music' is an Absolute Joy at the Lyric -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater / Opera Review

The Sound of Music
by Rodgers and Hammerstein
Lyric Opera of Chicago
Thru May 25

Since 1999, I have seen a few hundred musicals on stage, several multiple times.

Until 2011, The Sound of Music was the most famous musical I had never seen live, never having noted an opportunity. So that summer I made a point of catching one of just two performances by Chamber Opera Chicago at the Athanaeum Theater.

It was terrific. Even better, later that same year, was an outstanding production at Drury Lane Oakbrook.

Now, a year after it presented--wondrously--Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma, the Lyric Opera of Chicago is staging another of the duo's masterpieces. (A third, Carousel, is already slated for next spring.)

And The Sound of Music within one of the world's great opera houses is simply sublime.

Let's start at the very beginning, a very good place to start.

Wednesday night, I arrived at the Civic Opera House just before 7:00pm, thinking the curtain was at 7:30, typical for the venue.

But an usher was urgently letting people know the performance would start in just three minutes. Oops! And my friend Paolo, who had earlier picked up the tickets--bought through Goldstar for just $35 for back of the main floor, for a show every bit as good as on Broadway--wasn't yet there.

Luckily, just as I was starting to panic--opera house policy typically doesn't allow entry (or even re-entry) during acts, but was more lenient for this atypical, non-subscription musical theater production--Paolo arrived and we got to our seats before the orchestra began.

And from the very first notes of the overture, several things were readily apparent.

The scenery, with a set design by Michael Yeargan, was fantastic.

Broadway veteran Jenn Gambatese made for a sweet, spry, funny, well-sung and generally terrific Maria.

The vocal quality throughout the cast--comprised of opera stars like Christine Brewer (Mother Abbess) and Elizabeth Futral (Elsa), Broadway performers like Gambatese and Edward Hibbert (Max) and some familiar local performers filling the ensemble--was routinely superlative. (For most part, the vocal stylings were not operatic.)

Betsy Farrar was particularly terrific as Liesl, the oldest of the von Trapp children, all of whom were embodied delightfully.

The full orchestra conducted by Rob Fisher sounded magnificent.

And though he doesn't have a Broadway-caliber singing voice (though he once played Billy Flynn in Chicago), let alone one to envelope an opera house, Billy Zane--of Titanic movie fame--brought ample panache and star power as Capt. von Trapp.

Actually, during Act I, when the Captain is rather petulant and dismissive, I felt like I was watching a portrayal akin to Zane's haughty and derisive Cal Hockley in Titanic.

And having seen Gambatese in a touring version of Wicked just last fall, plus my sense that her speaking and singing voice sounds similar to Kristin Chenoweth (who was in the original Wicked), I couldn't help think that the Maria who had arrived at the von Trapp's door was really the good witch Glinda.

But the odd connections in my head did nothing to distract or diminish what was a truly sensational production in every aspect.

Not only did it gloriously illustrate just how genius Mssrs. Rodgers and Hammerstein were as songwriters--
before latecomers finished shuffling in, we had heard the title song, "Maria," "My Favorite Things," "Do Re Mi," "Sixteen Going on Seventeen" and more, with classics like "So Long, Farewell" and "Climb Ev'ry Mountain still to come.

And as with each time I've seen "Oklahoma," "South Pacific," "The King and I" and "Carousel," I was reminded just how daring and pointed the musical duo often were in their messaging--in this case aided by book writers Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse.

It's easy to think of R&H as the quintessential creators of show tunes that were not only popular but populist, but the story of a family daring to defy the Nazi regime and lose friends over it isn't without a fair amount of depth and gravitas.

As someone who has vast appreciation for the greatness of the Lyric Opera but has never emotionally embraced "opera" in its typical sense like I have "Broadway," I believe musical theater miracles like The Sound of Music fully fit within American opera houses.

Yet, especially given the myriad venues throughout Chicagoland where great musical theater is presented, I applaud the Lyric for staging Oklahoma, Sound of Music and Carousel--with 2 more Rodgers & Hammerstein gems to come--outside its subscription series. 

While I think the term "opera" can embrace great musical theater, I respect lovers of Puccini, Verdi, Wagner and Mozart who may not want fewer of the classic operas in their subscription packages.

But with a Broadway-level director like Marc Bruni (he's currently helming Beautiful: The Carole King Musical on the Great White Way), stars like Gambatese, Zane and more, plus a glorious orchestra, set design and costumes, Chicago is getting a version of one of the greatest musicals of all-time every bit as good as would be expected in Times Square or London's West End.

With discounted tickets as low as $21 each (for select performances) on Goldstar, and more than 20 performances remaining, there's no reason musical lovers--and open-minded opera lovers--shouldn't climb ev'ry mountain to get to this production.

Given that the Chicago Shakespeare Theater has presented a series of sublime Sondheim musicals and the Lyric in the midst of showcasing the remarkable Rodgers & Hammerstein canon, all Chicago needs is for the Goodman to follow this summer's production of Lerner & Loewe's Brigadoon with My Fair Lady and Camelot, and perhaps Steppenwolf to add yearly takes on Kander & Ebb.

It may be May and the weather still sucks, but there's nowhere consistently warmer that presents
world-class theater with greater regularity than Chicago.

Thus, when Mother Nature or whatever else dictates that I simply remember my favorite things, shows like the Lyric's The Sound of Music will come mirthfully to mind.

And then I--despite the cold, rainy weather--"won't feel so bad."

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