How do you solve a problem like "The Sound of Music"? One way is to cast Marie Osmond, perhaps the only star in America who could believe unequivocally in the impeccable sentiments of the singing nun, Maria. As Oscar Hammerstein II stated many times, an artist can freshen the most tired cliche if he approaches it guilelessly. That talent allowed Hammerstein to write a lyric like "Oh, what a beautiful morning/Oh, what a beautiful day," celebrating an experience so ordinary it remains invisible to most people.
But Hammerstein penned that song for "Oklahoma!," his first musical with Richard Rodgers, 16 years before "Raindrops on roses/And whiskers on kittens"--a lyric to choke on, and food for countless parodies. Unlike "Oklahoma!" or "Carousel," "The Sound of Music" is not the sound of writers perfecting their art or, as in "Allegro," stretching themselves. No, for this 1959 musical, their last one together, they provided songs in patterns or genres they'd already gotten down perfectly elsewhere--"My Favorite Things" stands in for "I Whistle a Happy Tune" from "The King and I" and "Climb Every Mountain" for "You'll Never Walk Alone" from "Carousel."
Still "The Sound of Music" has its distinctions, and some of them can be seen at the Pantages Theatre until Aug. 21. In no other show do Rodgers and Hammerstein center so firmly on their own lifelong thesis--the strange and extraordinary power of music. It can make you realize you're in love, guide you in the darkest storm; it can even distract Nazis while you make a getaway.
And if no one believed in the power of music with as much simple faith as Rodgers and Hammerstein and their heroine, the wayward nun Maria, probably few people believe in it with as much wholesomeness as Osmond. Blessedly, the star, who does look like Barbie come to life, sings well, as does the entire cast. She has a clear, full voice that is mature and restrained, a surprise for anyone who has studiously avoided her since the days of the "The Donny and Marie Show." Her acting is unaffected. Any fears (or hopes) that she would top the near-disaster her brother Donny suffered in the 1982 Broadway revival of "Little Johnny Jones" are immediately assuaged. But she is limited by that wholesomeness. Her Maria goes from virginal ignorance (with outbreaks of spunk) to matron with nothing in between, certainly not desire. Next to Osmond, Julie Andrews look like a vixen.
As Capt. Von Trapp, Laurence Guittard does not help romantically, unless you find William F. Buckley a honey. Gone is any trace of the boyish charm Guittard displayed as Curly in the 1979 revival of "Oklahoma!" on Broadway. Instead, he has matured directly into the pompous fool he played in "A Little Night Music" several years before.
In the movie version, two secondary characters, Baroness Elsa Schraeder (Jane Seaman) and Max Detweiler (John Tillotson) were robbed of their songs, among the most interesting in the score. Here, the characters are restored to their full importance, but Max, conceived by Tillotson as an uncloseted homosexual, seems from the wrong decade entirely. Seaman is quite human as the kind of overly plucked and penciled woman that children hate. She fights a losing battle, though, with Jonathan Bixby's hideous costumes, which ask us to believe a woman of Elsa's wealth and sophistication would wear a sparkling gown of green, silver and purple with maroon gloves or a beige pants suit with visible panty line. (Don't even ask about Maria's return-from-honeymoon outfit.)
Claudia Cummings is a warm Mother Abbess with a gorgeous voice; she makes you want to sign up as a novitiate. The children are inoffensive, with Sara Kate Zelle as Brigitta as the standout. Before Zelle, I never realized that these children actually have distinct personalities and that Brigitta is the smart one.
Neil Peter Jampolis' interior sets look lavish only if he keeps the lights low. The exteriors look like drops from a touring show, which is what they are. But if the mountains are not inspirational, they are not obtrusively amateurish either.
Oscar Hammerstein's son James directs with obvious and deep respect for his father's aesthetic. In this far-away age, he takes us about as close to the source as we can be expected to get.
For many people, "The Sound of Music" is a return to childhood, when the image of wild geese that fly with the moon on their wings was a deeply romantic one. In order to hear, beneath the cliche, the beautiful strain of music to carry you there, one must experience this show from a pre-critical place. Believe it or not, Marie Osmond is a credible guide there.
* "The Sound of Music," Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Tuesday-Saturday, 8 p.m., Saturday-Sunday matinees, 2 p.m., Sunday, 7 p.m. Ends Aug. 21. $20-$50. (213) 365-3500 and (714) 740-2000. Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes.
Marie Osmond: Maria Laurence Guittard: Capt. Von Trapp Claudia Cummings: The Mother Abbess John Tillotson: Max Detweiler Jane Seaman: Baroness Elsa Schraeder Vanessa Dorman: Liesl Richard H. Blake: Rolf Elizabeth Owens: Frau Schmidt Garrett States: Herr Zeller David Barron: Franz Scott Hamilton: Friedrich Laura Bundy: Louisa Stephen Blosil: Kurt Sara Zelle: Brigitta Jacy DeFillippo: Marta Lisbeth Zelle: Gretl Jill Bosworth: Sister Berthe Mary C. Sheehan: Sister Margaretta Georga Osborne: Sister Sophia Jim Oyster: Baron Elberfeld Richard Neilson: Adm. Von Schreiber
A presentation of the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera. Music by Richard Rodgers. Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II. Book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse. Directed by James Hammerstein. Musical staging by Joel Bishoff. Scenery and lights by Neil Peter Jampolis. Costumes by Jonathan Bixby. Sound by Duncan Edwards. Production stage manager John Actman.