Mirvish Doesn’t Solve This Maria Problem

Andrew Lloyd Webber, David Ian and David Mirvish obviously spent a fortune on the hills for The Sound of Music now playing at the Princess of Wales Theatre, and although the hills may be alive- the rest of the production falls dramatically short.
Robert Jones’ sets are indeed spectacular, and I could tell that the audience around me was utterly spellbound by their magical movements and the sheer size and magnificence of everything. And yet, just as a theatre is not built with bricks, but rather, with people, neither should a production rely on its set to razzle-dazzle the audience into forgetting to notice what should be essence of the show.
What is the essence of The Sound of Music? I think for a musical that has been so overdone, the music so engrained in popular culture, the images so sweet they run the risk of being entirely discarded as fanciful nonsense by contemporary audiences, the essence of this show lies in the performances.
Canada chose Elicia MacKenzie to be its Maria in the CBC reality show How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria? This show is MacKenzie’s professional debut- and I wonder how many of Canada’s established, brilliant young musical theatre performers declined to even audition for this show because they did not want to indulge in the media circus of reality television that threatens to rid actors in all fields of the jobs they are more than qualified for. That aside, MacKenzie does have a lovely voice and she makes a sweet looking, young, naïve Maria. However, it appears as though she has watched the film version ceaselessly as she imitates Julie Andrews’ tone and voice exactly. There are two problems with this technique, however; the first is that it leaves the audience wondering why Maria, an Austrian nun played by an actor from Vancouver, has a British accent, and second, MacKenzie only captures Andrews’ voice not any of the emotion or nuances behind it. Her Maria is like a hollow chocolate bunny, sweet on the outside, but with a huge gaping hole in the belly.
Burke Moses played Gaston in Beauty and the Beast on Broadway, in Los Angeles and in London and he plays Captain Von Trapp with the same sort of cartoon boorishness mixed with a sprinkle of a rugged daytime Soap Opera star. Unfortunately, there is no discernable moment where Von Trapp’s humanity shines through and he’s able to connect with his children or Maria. The children (Megan Nuttall, Simeon Vivian, Emily Hawton, Michael Murphy, Libby Adams, Camden Angelis, and Amariah Faulkner) are obviously extremely talented, but I felt like the only direction Jeremy Sams gave them was “alright everyone, look adorable!” I didn’t get a sense of the children’s unique personalities or their interactions with one another, or with the other characters in the show. They were all simply short, cute, singing, dancing people, which I’m sure is a waste of each of their talents. Camden and Amariah (Marta and Gretl respectively) are also about the same height and dressed quite similarly, so much so, that I found at several points throughout the show they became indistinguishable.
Keith Dinicol drains Max Detweiler of all the charm he needs to not seem like a freeloading jerk, and Blythe Wilson seems far too sweet as Baroness Schraeder. I almost felt sorry for her when Georg ditched her so suddenly for the runaway nun. It is a pity that No Way to Stop It and How Can Love Survive aren’t better songs, because Wilson has such a lovely voice.
The shining part of The Sound of Music for me was Jeff Irving who plays Rolf. Irving is filled with a contagious dynamic charm which glows earnestly throughout the Sixteen Going on Seventeen scene. There is no wonder that Liesl is smitten with him and his energy gives the entire show the lift it needs to be really engaging. Unfortunately, he’s only in two scenes.
It is always difficult to produce a show that has been turned into a classic motion picture, and I sympathize with Mirvish because it would be impossible to find a girl to replace our visions of Julie Andrews, or a man to have us forget Christopher Plummer as Captain Von Trapp. It is difficult to not fall into the trap(p) of wanting to reproduce the film exactly, and it is clear that many of the Mirvish audience members were intent on seeing just that. The woman who sat in front of me was discontented because MacKenzie’s hair had not been dyed blond, and wondered why her dress couldn’t have been an exact replica of Julie Andrews’.
However, as I sat behind her and suddenly the Princess of Wales theatre was filled with swastikas, I was reminded that The Sound of Music has the potential to be a political show. There are important messages, profound images, terrifying truths and ideas that are too easily glossed over by pretty mountains or sing-along songs. But, with the right direction, this show could force you to really listen, and to think, and maybe, just maybe, hit you in the gut. What is the point, after all, of doing The Sound of Music, exactly like the film, when it’s only going to come up short? Shouldn’t we all just watch the film? It does seem to me as though there are a myriad of possibilities to do something different and to prove that this is not simply a museum piece, but relevant and nostalgic at the same time.
The woman in front of me told her friend that she “always sees all the theatre playing in Toronto”- she then listed a number of Mirvish and LivEnt shows from the past few decades to prove her point. If Mirvish is dominating the theatre scene in Toronto so much that citizens of this city don’t even know that there are dozens of other established professional theatres here, Ed and David have done us all a great disservice. Perhaps if this woman, and the rest of the audience, had been privy to Edges (Acting UpStage) or Palace of the End (Canadian Stage Company) or How it Works (Tarragon) or The Drawer Boy (Theatre Passe Muraille), The Sound of Music wouldn’t have received a five minute long standing ovation that hurt my soul.
Or maybe it would have. Richard Ouzounian liked it after all.
The Sound of Music plays to January 11th, 2009 at the Princess of Wales Theatre. 300 King Street West, Toronto, Ontario. For tickets call 416 872-1212 or toll free at 1 800 461-3333 or online at http://www.ticketking.com/

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