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FringeReview UK 2023

The Sound of Music

Chichester Festival Theatre by Arrangement with Concord Theatricals, on Behalf of The Rodgers & Hammerstein Organisation

Genre: Biographical Drama, Costume, Historical, Live Music, Mainstream Theatre, Musical Theatre, Theatre

Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre


Low Down

This is a top, not just first-rate cast; a riveting, rethought revival. There’s not a weak link – and some vocal surprises. The end is almost unbearably moving. Some still come over mountains as here, some in small boats. You might not feel the same about something you thought you knew. An outstanding revival.

Directed by Adam Penford, Set Designer Robert Jones, Choreographer Lizzie Gee, Musical Supervisor Gareth Valentine, Musical Director Matt Samer, Orchestrations Larry Blank and Mark Cumberland (original, Robert Russell Bennett), Lighting Designer Johanna Town, Sound Designer Paul Groothuis, Video Designer Hayley Egan, Casting Director Natalie Gallacher CDG for Ailion Casting, Children’s Casting Director Verity Naughton CDG, Voice & Dialect Coach Kay Welch.

Associate Director Jasmine Teo, Assistant Musical Director  Sarah Burrell, Children’s Workshop Choreography Assistant Rebecca Louis, Associate Casting Director Richard Johnston.

Production Manager Ben Arkell, Costume Supervisor Poppy Hall, Wigs, Hair & Make-Up Campbell Young Associates, Props Supervisor Lisa Buckley.

Company Manager Kate Schofield, Stage Manager Phil Gleaden, DSM Andrew Reed, ASMs Emily Humphreys, Rose Dayan, Zoe Lyndon-Smith, Young People’s Co-Ordinator Sue O’Donoghue.

Till September 3rd


As soon as this Maria (Gina Beck) walks on to the Chichester Festival stage, you’re reminded of something often-buried. Maria is Shaw’s St Joan on the alps, with a Broadway tweak. Beck’s incredibly fresh, forthright, ballsy-but-innocent Maria strips away whatever time’s done and brings us something always there.

Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music, directed by Adam Penford has rarely seemed this natural. It helps Beck possesses a glorious soprano, but a soprano that acts in character. Howard Lindsay’s and Russell Crouse’s Book sharpens with the varnish stripped off.

Always political (South Pacific, Carousel, The King and I – respectively racism, abuse, imperialism), this team in their final musical seemed to step back from edgy relationships. The love story’s happy; evil’s without, not within. But how a country finds evil within itself is wincingly well-drawn.  No fault of the artists that this show has the highest total of great numbers (only West Side Story equals it), the story’s breathtaking because true, or a great film resulted.

Penford’s designed this with Chichester’s thrust involving the audience at key moments. Chilling apparitions pop up cheek-by-jowl; there’s a breathtaking final exit. Beck (also costume-designer) strides on to a swept Festival stage, jagged backdrop doubling as abbey and igneous rocks in Robert Jones’ expressionist multi-purposed set with slide-in mansion façade, pop-up working fountain and through a Trapp door the Abbess’ scriptorium. It’s where Johanna Town’s lighting stripes and shades seasons, cloisters, terraces and interiors: one of the most striking I’ve seen here.

Hayley Egan’s video is sparingly used, but when it is, combined with other props, the historical pageant shivers with evil. Herr Zeller (Max Pettifor) rings this like a catalyst: you’re reminded how unerringly Franz (William Ilkley) turns from decent old retainer to Nazi, and Frau Schmidt (Penelope Woodman) holds out as long as she can.

Beck sets the tone for a fresh introduction: nuns emerging from under the stage in front of us (often used), lit with plainsong morphing to melody, before Maria’s entrance, framing it with the ‘How Do You Solve a Problem like Maria?’

It’s where dour Sister Berthe (Wendy Ferguson) grumps low mezzo to Sister Margaretta (Julia J Nagle) who surprises with a soaring soprano moment of her own.  Youthful Sister Sophia (Lauren Chia) adds charity and brightness to the ensemble; but we’re in for one of the great moments as Mother Abbess (Janis Kelly) moves seamlessly into gear. We know where Kelly’s low soprano is headed, but the character and power she brings is one of the evening’s greatest.

Naturally this Captain sings far more and in Edward Harrison’s voice we get a reluctant blossoming with enormous affect, all the more moving for being withheld. By the time of ‘Edelweiss’ (Hammerstein’s last ever lyric) Harrison uses his voice dramatically, breaking down as the family chorus in. His duets with Beck too are treasurable, the ‘Somewhere in My Youth…’ also falling naturally.

‘Sixteen Going On Seventeen’ has been re-thought, in Lizzie Gee’s first big choreographed number. Goofy on occasion it’s more sexualised but far more edgy, playful, disturbing – beyond the appalling patriarchy (Hammerstein in 1959 four years after Rebel Without a Cause and deep into Elvis time, knows it too).

Here Rolf Gruber (Dylan Mason) gets his one singing number, ardent and arch, as well as a superb dancer; where elsewhere he’s a brattish messenger of the new. Sexually-awakened Lisl (Lauren Conway) though keeps on impressing, vocally (gleaming soprano) and as actor and dancer.

Being the musical, we’re (apparently) forbidden the ‘I Have Confidence’ song written after Hammerstein’s death, though it’s listed here; but we get Max’s brace of reality-checks. That’s with Elsa Schraeder (Emma Williams) more seductive, a shade less brittle than some Elsas; but no less decided. Williams joining in with Max’s ‘Be Wise, Compromise’, unleashes a ravishing soprano line, revelling in a top-note as her exit.

This Max Detweiler (burnished Ako Mitchell) takes a different line to the Broadway-fixer voice originally used: vocally more persuasive, smooth, more plausibly trimming, perhaps complicit with the family at the end. Much in the show’s telegraphed that the film spells out.

There’s lightning profiles too from Ursula in Rebekah Lowings, also Nun, New Postulant and Dance Captain Hana Ichijo, and varying shades of reluctance with the new Nazi regime from Baron Elberfeld (Tony Stansfield), Baroness Elberfeld (Annabelle Williams), Admiral von Schreiber (Minal Patel, squirming in his enforced recruitment of Von Trapp), and Guests to the glittering Party finale to Act One, later Nazis in Elliott Baker-Costello, Wendy Carr, Liam Marcellino, Rebecca Ridout.

Matt Samer’s band play snatches of pure orchestra –  Larry Blank and Mark Cumberland reduce Robert Russell Bennett’s original to punchy but rounded, and in Gareth Valentine’s supervision managed in 2 hours 45. So you’re reminded the wedding-blast blends bits of Meistersinger with Sousa. And there’s fugues!

The children (huge credit too to children’s casting director Verity Naughton) are both arresting and individual: Louisa (Sasha Watson-Lobo), Kurt (Vishal Soni), Brigitta (Audrey Kattan, winningly truthful), Marta (Maya Sewry), Gretl (Felicity Walton), all bring out their character with a vivid etch or two. Special mention though to Friedrich (Dylan Trigger) – a miraculous miniature solo and a voice both soaring and assured as he dances a singing line across the stage. Both child teams are rightly brought on at the end.

Beck dominates, exudes a kinetic force that swirls round to gather the children in, brings a truth and shrunken hesitancy to Maria’s moments of sexual crisis and confused awakening. From ‘The Hills Are Alive’ through ‘My Favourite Things’ used differently in case you know only the film, to the coloratura of the great yodelling number ‘High On a Hill’ (used also in the thunder sequence) to that duet.

An ENO stalwart, the authoritative Kelly is the other great stand-out, with ‘Climb Every Mountain’ the emotional showstopper closing both acts: building a climax, granitic, ringing as if there.

This is a top, not just first-rate cast; a riveting, rethought revival: whether or not it goes to the West End – no sign as yet, with recent productions perhaps too near, a great pity. There’s not a weak link – and some vocal surprises.

As the far-right gains credence everywhere, it’s timely too. The end, as dimly-lit, the refugees make their way with scanty packs right up through the auditorium and exit, is almost unbearably moving. Some refugees used to arrive by trains, as did the Von Trapps in reality. And like the 1930s, we still pretend it’s no concern of ours. Some still come over mountains as here, some in small boats. You might not feel the same about something you thought you knew. An outstanding revival.