You may know the movie version of The Sound of Music with Julie Andrews from 1965 like the back of your hand, but have you ever seen a production of the original Rodgers and Hammerstein show? Originally debuting in 1959, the show has delighted audiences around the world for over 60 years now, and when you see it performed by the Prince William Little Theatre and Manassas Symphony Orchestra at the Hylton Performing Arts Center, you’ll instantly understand why. This production shines thanks to several outstanding cast members’ instantly lovable performances and stellar singing ability.
Immediately after the Nun-led “Preludium,” a solemn number establishing the abbey setting so fundamental to the start of Maria’s Hero’s Journey, The Sound of Music introduces through the title song its protagonist, and this production’s centerpiece: Maria, played by Meghan Bentley as a radically sincere, impossibly sweet character with a Broadway-quality voice that perfectly matches The Sound of Music’s core ethos about valuing and protecting innocence from forces that would seek to destroy it. Bentley’s embodiment of that innocence does not feel too sweet by any means — the simplicity of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s music makes her performance all the more — and her clear, ringing vibrato made me want to email Disney stat to make sure they know she’s here to voice their next princess. Bentley’s Maria wins the audience’s affections within about two measures of the song and simultaneously establishes by the show’s second number that this production is a real-deal showcase of some of the top talent the DC metro area has to offer.
Director Susy Moorstein and Producer/Choreographer Chrissy Mastrangelo creatively place Maria’s entrance through the title number on a stage-right balcony above the audience, quite fitting of Bentley’s angel-esque performance. Meanwhile, an image of the Swiss Alps spans the back wall of the stage, looking down over an elaborate, grand staircase constructed by Set Designer Nick Mastrangelo, and Set Construction team David Ritchey, Kasey Moore, Tim McCleerey, Kathryne Mastrangelo, Roger Hamilton, Ryan Heisey, Greg Pisocky, and cast. The staircase — which echoes the staircase you might remember from the movie’s classic scenes in the Von Trapp estate’s entryway — descends to the floor on either side of the orchestra, who perform right on stage throughout the show with panache under Music Director Veronica Miller and Conductor Jim Villani.
The show has, thankfully, cast child actors who actually appear to be the ages their characters canonically are. While this makes their performances and the show as a whole feel more authentic, it also, to the show’s credit, makes “Sixteen Going On Seventeen” significantly more uncomfortable to witness, especially given the plot afoot in the song. (Because every Rodgers and Hammerstein show needs its own version of “I Cain’t Say No”… oh, lord.) The awkwardness this song emits is arguably a credit to how convincingly Sophia Manicone plays Liesl — she performs the character with such thorough innocence and naivete (see earlier comment about the show’s innocence ethos, which Manicone plays a major role in helping convey in the story more broadly) that one feels truly anxious for her knowing what her love interest Rolf — played with a degree of “suspicious all along” by Jimmy Houck making his arc more educational (”watch out for paternalistic behavior!”) than emotional (“how dare that once-sweet boy become a Nazi!”) — is about to become.
The scene remains awkward to watch, regardless. After “Sixteen Going On Seventeen,” I leaned over to the friend I was going with and whispered, “That Nazi just kissed that underage girl!” But yes, that’s par for the course with this show from the ’50s. And of course, the character of Rolf is a cautionary tale for people who might be easily sucked into fascist movements. And girls who might accidentally date Nazis. Whoopsie!
In addition to Meghan Bentley’s Maria, the show’s best performers come in James Maxted, who plays Max Detweiler, and Christine Maxted, who plays Mother Abbess (and the two are coincidentally married!). Max delivers his lines with an exuberant slinkiness perfect for his character’s blend of connivery and heroics and does so with such fluency, poise, and authenticity that it is truly difficult to believe he’s acting. The show’s third standout, Mother Abbess — while noticeably young for the traditionally matronly role — is performed with a gloriously operatic voice. The sheer power of her vocals not only compensates for Maxted not quite looking the part — especially given the presence of multiple other nuns in the cast who do — but also got the rest of the audience out of their seats during the show’s standing ovation at its conclusion. I had nonstop chills during “Climb Every Mountain,” which Rodgers and Hammerstein use to end Act I, and what a closer it is. It’s no wonder that, as her bio states in the program, Christine Maxted has performed at the Kennedy Center, the Lincoln Center, and at international venues in Prague and Budapest. And the Maxted couple’s child, Ollie Maxted, also acts in the show as Kurt Von Trapp, performing the character as a joyous, curly-haired boy who loves his siblings — often seen holding hands with them and gathering them around Maria — charmingly, too!
This production of The Sound of Music thrives on its top talent. At the first of three performances taking place over the weekend of July 16 through 18, there were some noticeable issues with sound, particularly with characters who entered the stage for a brief address before exiting not having their mics switched on in time. This was an issue primarily in the middle of the show but seemed to happen less as time went on — clearly, an easy fix. The Manassas Symphony Orchestra also dealt with occasional intonation issues that were distracting at times. Also, an electronic instrument — a synthesizer or keyboard, it wasn’t clear — within the orchestra also diverted attention detrimentally at times. While it did fit in at moments when it was played more quietly, effectively modernizing the often formal-sounding score, it felt too out-in-front most of the time, and consequently seemed off-beat sometimes, as well.
Occasionally, the comparative authenticity of some actors’ performances made other actors’ choices seem more wanting in moments. While Jay Tilley convincingly embodies Captain Georg von Trapp’s stoic navy-grounded persona for the show’s first half, his climactic realization of his flawed parenting brought about by his children singing to him is played more like he’s following stage directions to go hug the kids than a performance of an apologetic father’s sincere change of heart. This is of course a tremendously difficult thing to pull off, especially given the tiny span of a few seconds that Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse’s book and Richard Rodgers’ score give the Captain’s actor to show it. Still, a more soulful facial expression from Tilley and/or an epiphany reflected in physicality during this moment might do a great deal of good in helping the Captain convincingly win favor with his children, Maria, and Elsa (played by Becca Harney), as well as the audience, who are asked by Rodgers and Hammerstein to suddenly view this character in an entirely new light — and von Trapp’s actor, unfortunately, must oblige Rodgers and Hammerstein in their request.
This production of The Sound of Music thrives on its top talent, and anyone in the Northern Virginia area hoping to see some truly remarkable acting and vocal performances should stop by. You’ll be stunned by the magnitude of the Merchant Hall at the Hylton Performing Arts Center and the way that these voices fill it.
Running Time: Approximately three hours, including one intermission.
The Sound of Music plays on July 15, 2022, at 7:00 PM, July 16 at 2:00 PM, and July 17 at 2:00 PM presented by Prince William Little Theatre and the Manassas Symphony Orchestra performing at Merchant Hall, Hylton Performing Arts Center, 10960 George Mason Cir, Manassas, VA. Tickets ($25 adult; $20 senior (55 and over), student (13 years of age and older), active and retired military; $15 youth (12 years and younger) are available online.
Cast and creative credits for The Sound of Music are here.
COVID Safety: Masks are recommended but not required and the Hylton Center is not conducting vaccination checks at the entry at this time. Details about current protocols are here.