Show and Tell: 'The Sound of Music' at The 5th Avenue Theatre

The magical absorption of seeing something fresh (when you’ve known it your whole life)

Photo credit: Mark Kitaoka

A very long time ago, my childhood friend Julie and I loved the movie The Sound of Music, unironically and with hearts wide open. We stopped the video over and over when the Captain and Maria are dancing — you know, where she blushes in his arms because he is Christopher Plummer and she's just a young nun in her first blue party dress — rewinding again and again until we, too, knew how to dance the Austrian folk dance called the Ländler.

We loved it like that, and then we grew up and got very busy.

So when I got tickets to see The Fifth Avenue Theatre’s live production of The Sound of Music, and there were just a few hours until showtime, I called Julie (of course). 

“No time for preliminaries,” I said. “The Sound of Music, 5th Avenue, tonight at 8 p.m.?” She was right on board.

For the uninitiated — are there any uninitiated? — The Sound of Music tells the tale of a young nun, Maria, whose convent sends her to the seven governess-abusing children of a widowed military man “in the last golden days of the thirties” (this from the opening credits of the movie, as I recall, in fancy golden letters).

The Captain is stern and aloof (of course), and has run his house like a military operation since his wife died. Young Maria wins the children over (naturally), and in the course of bringing this family back together (THROUGH SONG), she and the cap'n fall in love.

Photo credit: Mark Kitaoka

But then World War II comes to town, and they have to flee the Nazis. It's that kind of story.

Here's what I wondered, going in:

1. Was Julie's and my relationship with The Sound of Music just one of those girl things, and now we'd look back on SoM fondly as a thing we used to love, the same way we outgrew hanging out on The Ave and our crushes on <name redacted, we're all still local>?

2. Can a person who loves the movie truly enjoy the stage play? Or does every difference become the play “getting it wrong”? (Assuming that a theatrical production can't accommodate the children singing and dancing in their curtain-clothing through all the sights of Salzburg.)

Here’s what we knew, coming out:

1. The Sound of Music is, in fact, a love that lasts a lifetime.

2. Watching the play quickly stops being an “Is this as good as the movie?” exercise, because the play is what almost nothing else is these days: Utterly absorbing.

We in the audience weren't absorbed because of the sets, which were fine, or the acting and singing, which were very good — having a Captain von Trapp who can actually sing was, for example, something of a revelation.

No, what drew us all in and didn't let us go for nearly three hours was the fact of the actors themselves: right there, singing, talking, to us. The curtain opens on Nonnberg Abbey, and instantly the play’s the thing — the only thing — anyone in the audience wants to be thinking about. The calming beauty of the nuns’ Latin choral “Preludium” starts, and the day you were having up to this moment melts into nothingness.

Photo credit: Mark Kitaoka

From there, it’s also a real good romp. The children are funny, the songs as terrific as ever, and the differences — well, charming. For example, in the stage version, “My Favorite Things” is sung at the Abbey, by Maria (Kirsten deLohr Hellgood, who finds just the right combination of brash confidence and naïve vulnerability) and the Mother Abbess (Anne Allgood). Weird for one second, and then it’s fun, to see those two having fun.

You also get the hint in this number that Allgood’s got some pipes, and when she really lets them go in “Climb Ev’ry Mountain,” the scene we all fast-forwarded through, in the video — well, no one’s fast-forwarding now. We’re all too busy getting goosebumps.

The live production also conveys the fear of those times. When a giant red banner unfurled above the von Trapps at the music festival, swastika dead center, I wasn’t the only one in our row who physically recoiled. It makes the point, the way only live theater can: Anything could happen. This note, the next song — they will never be replicated; they are right here, right now, for us. We don’t know, really, what’s going to happen next. The moment we are in isn’t printed on anything, and cannot be rewound.

In this kind of live arts experience, we give ourselves over completely to what's happening right before our eyes. In the case of The Sound of Music, it's a giving over that will leave you feeling cheered as you and yours (kids, spouse, childhood friend) venture back out into the twinkling Seattle nighttime to walk along Fifth Avenue and feel a part of this season of light.

Parents should know

The play is appropriate for all ages, but, like the movie, it’s long. You might use the movie itself as a metric — it and the play are about the same length (nearly three hours) and pace (more leisurely than most productions written in the last 20 years). If your kids can sit through the movie, they'll do fine at this production. If not, another year might feel like a better use of your entertainment dollar.

And if your children already love the movie, setting expectations about the play’s differences might make those differences fun and interesting, rather than wrong. For example, the songs aren't all in the places you expect them to be. “My Favorite Things” and “Lonely Goatherd” are 100 percent delightful, but relocated. And a couple of songs in the play weren’t in the movie at all!

Finally, if your kids are old enough, you can gossip with them about the problem of Christopher Plummer’s voice. The producers wanted the look of Plummer for their film, and who could argue? But they had to figure out how to make the whole thing work given Plummer’s vocal … limitations.

Parent tips

The play, like the movie, assumes basic familiarity of Europe at the end of the thirties that a lot of people might not know. A simple explanation that war was coming and the Nazis had terrified the entire continent will help kids understand the tension of the second act.

There's nothing quite like a live orchestra. Have your kids watch for the conductor's baton to rise up and be visible every so often, and check out the orchestra pit beforehand or at intermission.

Then go home and look up the real von Trapps! They were real humans who escaped the Nazis, and settled in Vermont.

If you go…

When: The Sound of Music runs through Jan. 3, 2016. Show times are listed online. There are plenty of parking lots near the theater, and if you don't want to hassle with it, cabs are plentiful after the show. Allow time for parking and pre-ordering snacks.

Where: The 5th Avenue Theatre, 1308 Fifth Ave., Seattle

Tickets: Start at $29 may be purchased online or at (888) 5TH-4TIX. Group tickets (10 or more) may be discounted.

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