In its second of five planned spring productions of classic musicals by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, the Lyric Opera of Chicago finds a sweet Alpine spot with director Marc Bruni’s admirably lively new production of “The Sound of Music,” a lavish yet accessible and family-oriented affair that features the kind of gorgeous picture-book design from Michael Yeargan that would delight the Austrian Tourist Office. There’s an orchestra of 37 players under the baton of Rob Fisher, more singing nuns than anyone has the right to expect in this economy, a steep mountainside down which Maria can gambol (warbling all the way) and the Family von Trapp can make its escape, and an intermittently insouciant and wholly lovable Maria from the oft-underrated Broadway veteran Jenn Gambatese, an experienced but vulnerable performer in her vocal prime.
Bruni does not stage a revisionist production, nor one full of major surprises in its staging. But this is a far superior production to last year’s Lyric “Oklahoma” (although, in fairness, that was a much tougher Rodgers-and-Hammerstein piece to make work in an opera house). Bruni has been handed one of the small clutch of near-perfect American musicals, along with an ample budget. But he does not squander these gifts. On the contrary, he has figured out a very viable point of intersection of opera company and musical theater, a tricky challenge with which many skilled directors struggle.
Bruni embraces the size of the Civic Opera House stage — as when the von Trapp kids take to their matching bicycles and have plenty of room to ride — and explicitly uses its scale both to evoke the natural environment of the valley and to intimidate the characters, most notably Maria. In the best moment of the entire show, Yeargan’s breathtakingly imposing exterior of the von Trapp mansion rumbles forward from the rear, wrought-iron fence and all, just as Gambatese’s terrified Maria arrives down front to meet her young charges, armed only with her guitar. Outside the gate, she gulps audibly at the overwhelming wealth and authoritarian implications of the house. It’s a beautiful little moment that sets up a central conflict, and not one that would be possible with some conventional wing-and-drop tour. This is what people want when they are paying the big bucks.
Despite the scale of the setting, the transitions are exceptionally smooth, partly because Yeargan (whose work here really is a sight to see) has designed his scenic map almost like a jigsaw puzzle that might be for sale in a Salzburg souvenir shop. Aficionados of the piece will be delighted to see all of the vistas and moods of the abbey (which often are repeated in less lavish productions). Scenes in those cloisters including a wedding pastiche quite thrilling in its spectacle, thanks in no small part to the lighting of Duane Schuler and the grand, yet somehow breathable, costumes of Alejo Vietti.
But the pleasures are not all scenic. The tough roles (their characters are mostly there to serve the plot) of Elsa Schraeder and Max Detweiler are handled uncommonly well by, respectively, Elizabeth Futral and Edward Hibbert, both played as smarter than usual. Betsy Farrar is an exceptional Liesl and a lovely dancer; choreographer Denis Jones’ rendition of “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” is far more nervously dramatic than most, leaving you with an atypically acute sense of how wartime adolescents dealt with a ground that shifted along with their bodies.
It’s also clear that Bruni paid close attention to the first dance between Maria and Capt. von Trapp, a small scene that nonetheless allows Gambatese to telegraph a full gamut of emotional feeling out into the world at large. There is much to like about her performance, once she overcomes a certain nervousness with her surroundings that you sense in her opening number, but it’s her rather meta determination to undermine the stuffy dignity of von Trapp land (and, by implication, the environs of the show, and the opera house, itself) that makes her so endearing. It makes the show, really.
That dance with the flushed Maria is Billy Zane’s best moment. In general, Zane makes for a vocally tentative Capt. von Trapp, which would probably not be so noticeable were he not surrounded by such voices as that of Christine Brewer, a powerhouse, warm-blooded Mother Abbess and, less predictably, a group of von Trapp children who clearly were cast not just for their charm, as is typical, but for their formidable collective vocal prowess. The handsome Zane is a brooding and distant presence in the show’s earlier scenes, which works well, for it gives Gambatese’s Maria much to fight against. And it’s not that Zane cannot sing, more that he does not project the confidence of one who knows what lies buried beneath.
When this stiff, whistle-loving naval officer is required to melt, post-dance, both for adoration of beautiful governess and love of threatened country, he reveals too little. In that crucial “Edelweiss” climatic breakdown, which you likely recall from pervious productions and that completes his character’s transition from lonely mourner to loving head of a new family, Zane does not show us enough of his heart. Frankly, that means you worry for the married Maria with this distant man, when you want to feel some security as the von Trapp family treks off through the mountains to an uncertain future, sans mansion, sans those nice new bikes
And the Lyric’s future with this project? “The Sound of Music,” one can predict with some certitude, will do very well for them. It should. Even though the title is so familiar and oft-produced, there is that crucial sense of a special occasion about this endeavor, a show that’s far from stuffy yet willing to exploit its uncommon assets. The next step — next year, one hopes — will be a staging that takes more risks, explicates more, advances more, makes one cry with the sheer beauty of these pieces staged by one of very few places in United States that can make them sing like this joint.
When: Through May 25
Where: Civic Opera House,
20 N. Wacker Drive
Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes
Tickets: $29-$199 at 312-827-5600 or lyricopera.org/soundofmusic