In celebration of the 50th anniversary of the 1965 film version of The Sound of Music, producer Bill Kenwright brings the true story of Maria and the von Trapp family to Milton Keynes Theatre this week with Danielle Hope in the iconic role of a novice nun turned governess to seven motherless children, writes Alan Wooding.
Following the rise of Nazism in 1930s Austria, Maria goes on to melt the heart of a strict naval officer Captain Georg von Trapp, the children’s widowed father while the rest, as they say, is history.
Ironically Austria hosted the 60th anniversary of the Eurovision Song Contest last Saturday when they failed to pick up a single point, yet the unforgettable musical score which accompanies The Sound of Music is probably one of the most popular ever written.
Robert Wise’s film starring Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer has become the most successful musical movie in history and, with so many of location shots filmed in and around Salzburg, it has certainly given the Austrian city a new dimension other than being a winter sports destination.
Twelve months ago I flew into Salzburg where the locals were already preparing for the 50th anniversary of the film which has helped put them firmly on the ‘must visit’ map according to the Austrian Tourist Board.
The Sound of Music retells the story of the wealthy von Trapp family and their remarkable escape in 1938 from the clutches of Third Reich, their Nazi-occupied city being the backdrop that has made the film one of most remarkable and best known wartime tales thanks to Baroness Maria von Trapp’s 1949 autobiography.
However it was the musical genius of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II that brought that moving story to life in their original 1959 Broadway production with its host of memorable songs which included ‘My Favourite Things’, ‘Do-Re-Mi’, ‘Climb Ev’ry Mountain’, ‘So Long, Farewell’ and, of course, the title song plus the haunting ‘Edelweiss’.
I thoroughly enjoyed watching Connie Fisher play Maria at the London Palladium back in November 2006 but, make no mistake, Danielle Hope is not only her equal but close your eyes and it could have been Julie Andrews herself on the Milton Keynes stage … she really is that good!
Like Connie Fisher, Danielle also came into the limelight via the Andrew Lloyd Webber television talent contest route after she won ‘Over The Rainbow’ to become Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz.
With an absolutely stunning voice, she makes the part of Maria her own while she had a real chemistry with the seven von Trapp children, playing the part of governess Maria to perfection while last night she was fully deserving of her standing ovation.
Her leading man would have been familiar to many Coronation Street fans, for Steven Houghton takes on the role of Austrian Naval Captain Georg von Trapp who one minute is deserted by his fiancee only to propose marriage to Maria just a moment later.
Steven plays the role superbly and while his melodic vocal was perfectly suited to the wonderful ‘Edelweiss’, there is little by way of power in it unlike the voice of West End musical regular Jan Hartley.
She plays the convent’s Mother Abbess and when she sang ‘Climb Ev’ry Mountain’ at the end of the Act One, the hairs on the back of my neck were bristling. A trained opera singer, Jan is absolutely magnificent and, like Danielle, she also deservedly received a standing ovation.
Baroness Elsa Schrader – the original love interest of Captain von Trapp – is played by Sarah Soetaert who had wowed the Cambridge Theatre audiences as Roxie Hart in Chicago.
Although she plays a lesser role in this show, her duet with ‘concert fixer’ Max Detweiler (Howard Samuels) in ‘How Can Love Survive’ – one of three new songs introduced into the show – was her standout moment.
Another new song was ‘No Way To Stop It’ which opened Act Two sung by Else, Max and Captain von Trapp while the nuns chant another new number, ‘Gadeamus Domino’, at Maria and Georg’s wedding.
The children are simply brilliant with three teams of six switching for different performances, the only constant being the lovely Grace Chapman who plays the von Trapp’s eldest daughter, 16-year-old Liesl.
A relative newcomer compared to Jan Hartley, Grace has a wonderful voice and really looked after her younger siblings – 14-year-old Friedrich (played by Cole Emsley who certainly hit the high note!), Louisa (Ava Merson-O’Brien), Brigitta who always tells it like it is (Ellie Botterill), Kurt (Joshua Warden), Marta (Zaiya Omamori) and cute little Gertl (Elena Cervesi) who melted the hearts of the entire audience.
Completing the cast are Luke George as telegram boy Rolf Gruber, Kate Milner Evans as the von Trapp’s housekeeper Frau Schmidt and Martin Dickinson as Admiral von Schreiber while the part of von Trapp’s efficient butler Franz was taken by Philip Day.
The von Trapp’s neighbours were Baron and Baroness Elberfeld played by Colin Burnicle and Jessica Daley respectively while the three key nuns (Sisters Margaretta, Berthe and Sophie) are played by Zoe Ann Brown, Jessica Sherman and Grace Gardner.
If you’re familiar with the film version of The Sound of Music – and most people are! – the songs seems to be played in a slightly more random order, although all the favourites are naturally still there.
The show is directed by Martin Connor with the choreography courtesy of Olivier Award winner Bill Deamer, the sequence danced by Liesl and Rolf on the terrace being particularly enjoyable as was the ballroom party scene.
Under the direction of David Steadman, the show’s 10 musicians were wonderful while the overall sound quality was absolutely brilliant thanks to Dan Samson, David Beckham (no, not that one!) and Kyle Sepede.
In the past, the quality of the sound system at Milton Keynes Theatre has come into question at certain shows, but with the wonderful clarity and diction of all the actors, this time it really was perfection.
The Sound of Music plays Milton Keynes Theatre until Saturday, June 6 with show nightly at 7.30pm. There are also matinees on Wednesdays and Saturdays at 2.30pm plus an extra matinee this Thursday (May 28) also at 2.30pm. Tickets cost between £19.50 and £37 and can be booked in person at the theatre box office, by phone on 0844 871 7652 or online at www.atgtickets.com/miltonkeynes (booking fees apply).