Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Wednesday Night in Apache Junction: Apache Junction High School Performing Arts Department presents "The Sound of Music" in the AJPAC

This evening we saw a charming Apache Junction High School production of The Sound of Music at the Apache Junction Performing Arts Center. Astutely and efficiently directed by Paul Lanphear, the performances were about as pr as you get from talented high school kids. Since we've never seen an episode of Glee or High School Musical and have only seen one other high school production in the past thirty years -- Guys and Dolls at Automotive High School back in Brooklyn in 2009, we're certainly no experts in judging this kind of show, but we were quite impressed.

Let's just say that that student actors, sets, costumes, lighting, orchestra, and pretty much everything else has made a quantum leap in quality since we were in high school during the Punic Wars (okay, Vietnam). Our production of another Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, The King and I, in May 1965 at Meyer Levin J.H.S. 285 probably would seem really amateurish and clunky today although for the time it was probably pretty good. (Our director, Gladys Newman, had been a child star in movies with Maurice Chevalier, after all.)

The Sound of Music opened on Broadway in 1959, and our parents saw it with Mary Martin and Theodore Bikel (whom we met a couple of times), but we were only eight and Mom and Dad didn't take us to our first Broadway musical until 1961's Milk and Honey.
But soon after it opened, Miss Ferrara, P.S. 203's music teacher, taught us to sing the inspirational "Climb Ev'ry Mountain" in auditorium; we can still clearly remember the typed lyrics projected behind her, with us wondering why the "e" was missing from "every."

We loved the movie version of The Sound of Music came out a few years later, but even then we were aware that a lot of people considered the musical treacly. Another clear memory is reading in the New York Times Sunday Arts and Leisure section (required by our ninth grade English teacher Hazel Sanjour, who quizzed us on it Monday morning!) that Christopher Plummer, AKA Captain von Trapp, referred to the film as The Sound of Mucus.

And even as a teen, it seemed to us that The Sound of Music didn't have what we called the heft or bite of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma!, The King and I or South Pacific, which we saw at Lincoln Center with Florence Henderson, Giorgio Tozzi, and David Doyle a couple of years later. It seemed like there were no serious issues like racism or slavery dealt with in The Sound of Music, none of the spicy or suggestive humor of some of the other shows.

And famously, Brooks Atkinson's review of The Sound of Music in the New York Times, expressed disappointment over “the American musical stage succumbing to the cliche of operetta.” But he praised the show’s “melodies, rapturous singing and Miss Martin.”

But seeing this pretty terrific production of the show at Apache Junction High School has made us rethink the show as more than a collection of winsome kinder, inspiring nuns, and some of the best songs the classic Broadway musical ever produced.

The play actually takes place immediately before and after the Anschluss, after all; the stakes are really high, and there's a darkness at the edges of the lovely melodies (mostly in the form of the chilly and menacing Nazi Herr Zeller (Riley Brown here, in a nice turn) and the even scarier, in some ways, male ingenue Rolf (Colin Murphy).

There's also a way you can view The Sound of Music as a proto-feminist play, with two pedagogical duets with an older woman empowering another: first, early on with "My Favorite Things," when the Mother Abbess (a standout Katee Sharp, playing it with great power from her wheelchair) tells Maria how to face her new life outside the abbey with bravery; and then, in the reprise of "Sixteen Going on Seventeen" when Maria (Gracie Turner, very strong and lively throughout) advises Liesl (Molly Wyman) to "wait -- a year -- or two" before she can experience the "adventure" of adult love.

And we hadn't realized how much Rodgers had made use of Roman Catholic ecclesiastical music here before we saw this production, which had a very effective chorus of nuns.

Anyway, most of the audience was there just to have a good time, and we can't imagine anyone was disappointed. As we said, the sets, sound, costumes, and music, as well as the pacing, seemed incredibly professional to us. The glitches you'd expect from a high school production -- now that we're sixty, high school students seem very young indeed, after all -- were very few and far between. And the whole production rang with an intelligence that banished the fleeting thought beforehand that we'd need an insulin injection afterwards.

Even the cutest of the cute Von Trapp kids, little Gretl (Eliza Brimley), didn't cross over from cute to cutesy, and the cast was uniformly professional by the standards of a high school or even college production. Some of the student cast members had really terrific voices, like Devin Murphy as Friedrich.

Of course most of the classic songs in the show -- the title tune, "Climb Ev'ry Mountain," "Edelweiss," "My Favorite Things," "Do-Re-Mi" -- seem like they would be hard to spoil in any way. But they were all performed with nice bits of business and decently executed choreography (probably the trickiest thing to pull off in a high school show, as one of our dance major students from Fordham's Alvin Ailey program once told us).

The most problematic character in the play for us always was Captain von Trapp, and both Bikel and Plummer expressed a degree of discomfort with the way the role was written. But we liked the way David Moeller played the Captain, not as a martinet whose chilly demeanor is finally warmed by the cheerful governess, but as a kind of obsessive-compulsive neurotic for whom Maria's music -- and the kids' -- works as a kind of antidepressant medication. (The play, of course, is a highly fictionalized version of the Trapp Family Singers, whose real story was a lot more messy in various ways. We once talked to a woman who knew Baroness von Trapp, and the real Maria apparently was not such a sweetie.)

Some of the songs were cut out of the movie and here proved to be remarkably effective. We really liked "No Way to Stop It," with the Captain's idealism no match for the cynical realism of Max (a funny and roguish Quinton Prunty, who comes close to stealing several of the scenes he's in) and Elsa (Dani Bloodgood, drily no-nonsense but sly and pleasant).

But of course the most memorable moment of the play come from the delightful musical numbers of Maria and the kids, and here Gracie Turner, Molly Wyman, Devin Murphy, Eliza Brimley, Vicki Cisneros (Louisa), Victoria Komashko (Brigitta), Zane Michalek (Kurt), and Abby Brimley (Marta) always come through. And when Katee Sharp rises from her wheelchair near the end of "Climb Ev'ry Mountain," it provides an inspiring and thrilling end to the first act.

The cast got a well-deserved standing ovation at curtain call, and when we got out of the theater, we saw and heard them shouting "We did it!" and running around with the same kind of energy they exhibited onstage. They did do it, actually, and the people behind the scenes of this production -- especially the director, Paul Lanphear -- deserved a standing ovation, too. For five dollars, it was an almost obscene bargain, and the show has two more performances, on Thursday and Friday evenings at 6:30 p.m.


Livin' La Vida Lanphear said...

Hope you enjoyed the show. Thanks for coming out and supporting the Performing Arts Department at AJHS.

Paul Lanphear
AJHS Drama Director

Richard said...

Thank you so much for a great show.