Theater Review: By Raymond Benson

Billy Zane (far left), Jenn Gambatese (far right) and the cast of Lyric Opera's production of The Sound of Music  (photo by Todd Rosenberg).

May 11, 2014 - Lyric Opera of Chicago’s production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music has the size and scope of the Austrian Alps themselves. In fact, the fire curtain is a gorgeous reproduction of the magnificent mountains, complete with mid-drift clouds. Each successive set-piece—and there are many—is big, beautiful, and cavernous inside the Civic Opera House’s already spacious proscenium arch. The von Trapp family looks very small indeed surrounded by such grandeur, which only emphasizes their helplessness against the gargantuan onslaught of the Nazi regime that takes over Austria in 1938. And yet, the story of this true-life family that sings their way to freedom from oppression really is the size of their surroundings. As in the 1965 motion picture, which brought the musical to life in the reality of Salzburg, the Alps are very much another character in the Lyric’s magnificent presentation.    

We all know the story and are already whistling the tunes before going into the theater. Maria, a wannabe nun—but not really—is assigned to be governess of Captain von Trapp’s seven children. Georg von Trapp, a former decorated Austrian navy man and widower, runs the household as if it were a battleship. Discipline is his mantra, and Maria finds it a challenge to get him to loosen up and allow his offspring to be normal children. And, of course, as soon he does, the good captain and the governess fall in love. Von Trapp calls off his engagement to wealthy Elsa Schraeder, marries Maria, and the family escapes Austria just as the captain is called to duty for the Nazis.  

It actually sounds like a rather intimate story, doesn’t it? It is! And yet, the power of the words, the splendor of the music, the infectious joie de vivre of Maria and her charges, and the enormous heart of the piece elevates the von Trapp family’s biography to the sky.  

Without a good Maria, any production of The Sound of Music would fall flat, but Jenn Gambatese embodies the role as well as, if not better than, any previous portrayer this reviewer has seen and heard. Gambatese, who also created the musical roles of Jane in Disney’s Tarzan film and played Glinda in the first national tour of Wicked, sings like an angel and looks like one, too. One’s eyes cannot drift away from her when she’s on stage. She handles every aspect of the part with aplomb and single-handedly makes the show soar.  

Top-billed, however, is Chicago-born Billy Zane as von Trapp. Zane is an accomplished film and stage actor, among many other talents, probably most well-known for playing the heavy in the megahit film Titanic. Zane has an appropriately commanding presence on stage and is a perfect complement to Gambatese. Who knew Billy Zane could sing? He does so, and quite well, but it is his playing of the dialogue that illustrates that Zane is first and foremost a very talented thespian.  

For a successful Sound of Music, much depends on the abilities of the actors playing the children—and these kids, especially Betsy Farrar as Liesl and little Nicole Scimeca as Gretl steal our hearts with ease. They (as the entire production) are all truly terrific.  

Marc Bruni’s direction and Rob Fisher’s conducting of the orchestra are first class, but perhaps the most notable member of the creative team is set designer Michael Yeargan, whose visualizations of Salzberg, its surrounding countryside, and, especially, the von Trapp home and the nuns’ abbey, are simply breathtaking.  

But with any great production of this musical theater treasure, the true stars are Mr. Rodgers and Mr. Hammerstein. The audience may go in whistling the tunes, but they sure come out singing them.

Lyric's Opulent Sound of Music Hits All Its Magnificent Notes