Theater Review: A Pleasingly Bittersweet Sound of Music at the Academy of Music

Director Jack O'Brien gives us the show in glorious technicolor, while masterfully finding some darker undertones.

Kerstin Anderson (Maria) and the children in The Sound of Music at the Academy of Music.

Kerstin Anderson (Maria) and the children in The Sound of Music at the Academy of Music.

It might surprise The Sound of Music‘s legions of adoring young fans to learn that the show originally got mixed reviews. Oh, it was a commercial hit — and it took home a number of Tonys, including one for Mary Martin, the beloved Rodgers and Hammerstein muse who created Maria. But several prominent critics sniffed at the show’s sentimentality. “Hackneyed,” wrote Brooks Atkinson, while Walter Kerr deplored that the creative team “was moved to abandon snowflakes and substitute cornflakes.”

You don’t need me to tell you that the naysayers had little impact. In the ensuing 50-plus years, the show has only gained popularity, and I’m convinced that audiences love The Sound of Music in part because it’s kitsch. A decade ago, Judi Dench brought down the house at a London gala, when she played — wait for it — Liesl. The hugely popular midnight movie sing-along shows are an exercise in camp. NBC’s live holiday telecast a few years ago was best appreciated ironically (could anyone possibly mistake the tiny AstroTurf mat where Carrie Underwood performed the title song for an alp?).

So the tricky question for directors and producers who revive The Sound of Music is — how do you get people to take the show seriously, when it’s not even clear that’s what they want?

One option is to leave the traditions and sentiment alone — why fix what isn’t broken? But now and again, a brave director tries to look at the work with fresh eyes. After all, it is a show about faith and Nazis (also copper kettles and woolen mittens).

Jack O’Brien, who directed this revival (here in Philly as part of a national tour) is one of the smartest theater guys around; what’s more, he has a reputation for serious work. What O’Brien offers is a lesson in masterful balance. He punches up the politics in a startling way. He encourages his cast to dig into the lyrics and find discoveries in the songs — so that when Maria tells us she goes to the hills when her heart is lonely, it actually means something. In an especially touching moment, Captain von Trappe (superbly acted and sung by Ben Davis) first hears his children sing, and nearly breaks down. There’s an appetizing tang of bitters amidst all the sweetness.

At the same time, O’Brien knows what audiences want from The Sound of Music, and he gives it to us in glorious technicolor. (This must be the first production with glowingly blue-and-green alps that might have been rendered by Gauguin.) The singing nuns, the adorable kids, the mountain climbing and stream fording? They’re all here.

And of course, there’s Maria, given refreshingly youthful exuberance by newcomer Kerstin Anderson. (When Mary Martin played Maria, she was 46 — a wee bit long in the tooth to be climbing trees and scraping knees.) Anderson doesn’t have a lot of acting range, and she isn’t imprinted with star quality — but she’s charming and unmannered, and has a really lovely voice.

In short, this is The Sound of Music for the whole family: The kids will eat it up — and adults just might find something unexpected in it.

The Sound of Music runs through March 20. For more information, visit Broadway at the Academy’s website.