Theatre in Wales

Theatre, dance and performance reviews

Flat and under-rehearsed...

The Sound of Music

Aberystwyth Arts Centre Summer season , Aberystwyth Arts Centre , August-10-02
I have long been a fan of Aberystwyth's summer shows. Despite the variable quality, they have generally been energetic, accessible productions of familiar musicals that have maintained a decent professional standard. Some, like last year's High Society, had some added value - a directorial input that lifted it above the end-of-pier norm. So what made this year's Sound of Music different ?

The show does, after all, have an awful lot going for it. If you're a traditionalist, it has some of the most recognisable Rodgers and Hammerstein songs to hum along to; if you're a bit of a postmodern ironist, it has become a cult event and you can go dressed as a nun. There is an on-line yodelling competition. A huge Broadway and West End hit ever since it was first staged over forty years ago, it was a massive box-office and Oscar-winning success when the movie was released in 1965 with the soundtrack a double-gold album in the UK alone.

And, crucially, while on the surface it seems a sugary love story it is also a tale of oppression and freedom: it is, after all, set during the 1938 Anchluss, Nazi Germany's annexation of Austria, and the moral dilemmas about collaboration, the church's complicity, patriotism and so on are woven into the book of this hugely popular show (written, interestingly, not by Oscar Hammerstein, who only wrote the songs, but by Howard Lindsay and Russell Crouse whose idea it was to dramatise the Maria von Trapp memoir). Rodgers and Hammerstein had pulled a similarly subversive trick with South Pacific (beneath the slush and colour experimentation an indictment of American Third World domination) and in The Sound of Music they and their collaborators took the true story of the von Trapp family and made it a deceptively fun musical.

I don't really like the critical technique of knocking a production for what it isn't, rather than what it is. But at the core of the artistic failure of Kevin Wood's Sound of Music is its failure to deliver anything other than the story and songs - a bit like giving someone the wrapping paper without the present inside. What makes The Sound of Music special (and I confess I have until now escaped both the stage and film versions, so had no preconceived expectations) is that it is a populist political drama with songs. It may be the last of the old-fashioned American musicals (Hammerstein died months after it opened and West Side Story had revolutionised the genre), it may be sentimental in many ways, but it has something to say. Here, however, there is no real sense of the particular tensions - the impending Nazi takeover and subsequent loss of freedom, the willing compliance by many Austrians, the brave resistance and opposition shown by von Trapp when he sings to his concert audience Edelweiss, as potent a song as the Marseillaise (at least in this fiction: not so in reality), while the Nazis wait to escort him away. There is no sense of the metaphorical force of the hills, not only alive with the sound of music, but symbol of personal challenge (Climb Every Mountain), of a better world, of freedom, of the nation and the Austrian patriot's maquis. There is no sense of the relationship between personal, political and religious worlds. There is not even the moral of how love and song can transform a dysfunctional family.

It takes a production like this to show that content is important to a genre like the musical, because without it there is just too much reliance on the form and style. And not only are some of the numbers weak but the delivery is decidedly dodgy. A pro-am production is always fraught with difficulties but here the amateurs were simply embarrassing - on the night I saw it, lines were fluffed and they didn't seem to have been told how to stand or walk with any conviction, making some key scenes like the dinner party and von Trapp's summons from the new Nazi rulers utterly flat. The just-professionals similarly showed no signs of being coached in how to speak and, crucially, how to look - one particular debutante seemed to think that affecting a manic fixed grin was acting. At least Margaret Williams, following the tradition of using a "real" singer in the role but still underused as the Mother Abbess, had presence and could sing.

I imagine the root cause was under-rehearsal. But I am not convinced that double the time would have made the depressing superficiality of this production any more acceptable. Just because it's summer (well, sort of), just because we all know the songs, just because there are lots of local kids on stage... No, Aberystwyth audiences deserve better.

Reviewed by: David Adams

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