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Apr 14, 2016

‘The Sound of Music’ soars into Peace Center

Greenville News

Paul Hyde, [email protected] 2:52 p.m. EDT April 14, 2016

“The Sound of Music” probably ranks among the most beloved musicals ever written.

But do we really know it?

Veteran Broadway stage director Jack O’Brien wanted to offer a new take on the classic show by returning to Rodgers and Hammerstein’s original 1959 score and mining it for fresh insights. What he found was a story considerably more taut and dramatic than the familiar 1965 “Sound of Music” film adaptation.

O’Brien’s acclaimed national tour of “The Sound of Music” arrives at the Peace Center on Wednesday for eight performances through Sunday.

In directing the show, priority No. 1 for O’Brien, a multiple Tony Award-winner, was to provide a vivid sense of history unfolding.

Those hills are alive with the sound of music but also with the echo of peril as the Nazi goose step thunders toward Austria.

“I started digging into the script and these people became very real to me,” O’Brien said, speaking from his home in Connecticut.

“The danger in 1938 became very real to me,” he added. “I started looking at it through a historical point of view rather than a romantic point of view.”

Most fans know “The Sound of Music” from the 1965 movie, which memorably starred Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer. But the film downplays the growing Nazi menace, O’Brien said.

“We think of the show in terms of Hollywood,” O’Brien said. “I think of it in terms of world politics. “This is weeks before Kristallnacht (the massive attack in 1938 on Jews and their properties in Germany and Austria). Those people were innocent and baffled about what was going on. A lot of people assumed it wasn’t going to be a big deal. I think everyone was in danger, not excluding the nuns.”

Rodgers and Hammerstein created songs for the show that would become Broadway classics, such as “My Favorite Things,” “Sixteen Going on Seventeen,” “Climb Every Mountain,” “Edelweiss” and, of course, the soaring title melody.

O’Brien’s past many stagings include the Broadway productions of “Hairspray,” “The Full Monty,” “The Invention of Love” and “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.” (He won Best Director Tony Awards for the last three shows.)

For “The Sound of Music,” O’Brien departed from tradition by casting a somewhat younger Maria, the postulant who becomes a governess for the seven singing von Trapp children.

Mary Martin, who created the role on Broadway in 1959, was 46 years old. Andrews, in the film, was almost 30.

O’Brien’s star is 21-year-old Kerstin Anderson.

“Maria is probably, as a postulant, no more than six or seven years older than (16-going-on-17) Liesl,” O’Brien said. “I’ve always believed Maria was a ‘star-making’ part, rather than the leading role we remember from the movies and our experience, so I went looking for someone with star-making magic. And in through the audition door one day walked Kerstin Anderson, still studying at Pace University in New York. She opened her mouth, she sang, and the tears welled up in my eyes. If ever there were an enchanting young woman on the brink of discovery, this was it.”

Heightened drama

The tense historical backdrop of “The Sound of Music” gives everything in the show a greater urgency and poignancy, O’Brien said.

“I upped the emotional quotient,” O’Brien said. “The romance between Maria and Capt. von Trapp is extremely powerful. People sometimes applaud. Sometimes they gasp. You don’t remember much heat between Julie (Andrews) and Chris Plummer, that’s for sure.”

Some things remain the same in O’Brien’s “Sound of Music”: the von Trapp children are still adorable; Rodgers’ music is still richly tuneful.

“There’s something for everyone in the show,” he said.

But O’Brien also wanted audiences to see the show with new eyes.

“I feel that we’re so comfortable with that score,” he said. “It’s as if you’d step on a great raft on a summer afternoon and lie down with a picnic basket and a bottle a wine and you just float on those songs until it’s over. But the songs are really about something. The more we dug, the more we discovered. I realized that no one had asked any questions of ‘The Sound of Music’ for about 40 years. It was one of the most delightful and powerful experiences of my life. I’m happy to say that people are responding like crazy to it.”

For the latest in local arts news and reviews, follow Paul Hyde on Facebook and Twitter: @PaulHyde7.

YOU CAN GO

What: “The Sound of Music,” by Richard Rodgers (music) and Oscar Hammerstein (lyrics)

When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday; 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday; 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sunday

Where: Peace Center Concert Hall

Tickets: $30 to $85

Information: 864-467-3000 or www.peacecenter.org