The Sound of Music at Jefferson Performing Arts Center through Oct. 27
The Sound of Music???
“Been there, done that, seen the movie version,” you might respond. In these topsy-turvy times, however, a trip out to Metairie for JPAS’ highly satisfying revival of this enduring classic might be a welcome respite from the daily headlines.
In case you’ve been in the desert for the last 60 years or, for you young’uns, gaming on your Xbox to the exclusion of all else, Sound of Music relates the true story of Maria, a young Austrian novitiate, who, in the 1930s, is sent to be the governess for the 7 children of Georg von Trapp, a widower naval captain. Spoiler alert–they fall in love and manage a daring escape from the Nazis.
Richard Rodgers’ glorious music is as gorgeous as ever, his score featuring song after hummable song (Do-Re-Mi, My Favorite Things, Maria, Edelweiss, Sixteen Going on Seventeen, etc.). Oscar Hammerstein’s lyrics shine with warmth and brilliant wit.
Howard Lindsay & Russel Crouse’s sturdy book, while taking some extreme liberties with the facts of the von Trapps’ life (according to Wikipedia, they met in the 1920s; Maria didn’t fall in love with the Captain till after they were married (her love of the children brought them together); their escape from the Nazis wasn’t all that daring, etc.), adroitly shows the coming together and maturation of two very different people while holding the schmaltz to the minimum.
The big news in Metry is that opera singer and native New Orleanian Sarah Jane McMahon stars as Maria. Her rich soprano voice adds an extra layer of beauty to the music; seldom will you hear this role better sung.
After a perhaps too stately start with the title song, McMahon, a 2005 Best Actress in a Musical Ambie Award winner for portraying another Maria (in West Side Story), relaxes into the role and a dewy innocence naturally emerges that well-suits the would-be nun.
As the Captain, Richard Arnold may not be the most Teutonic of Barons nor does he quite conjure up the image of an experienced naval commander, his youthful mien better suited for his utterly charming turn in Tulane Summer Lyric’s She Loves Me earlier this year, but he brings a thorough emotional honesty to this rather thankless role. As you watch him and McMahon first gingerly avoid and, then, give in to the Captain and Maria’s romantic attraction to each other, there just might be a lump in your throat. At least there was in mine.
Kenneth Beck directs with brisk efficiency. This may not be the most imaginative production, but Music doesn’t really allow much room for auteurial flourishes. Still, Beck captures the simple grandeur of the wedding scene in Nonnberg Abbey and creates the proper tension for the story’s final moments. His choreography is pleasing and appropriate.
Conducting the JPAS Symphony Orchestra, Dennis G. Assaf successfully brings out the score’s various colorations, never overpowering the singers.
With a powerful, lustrous voice, Kathleen Halm makes Climb Ev’ry Mountain properly inspirational (tho this was the first time I realized that, in the stage version, its subtext is “You go, gurl, and get your man”) and nicely emphasizes the humanity of the Mother Abbess.
The rest of the cast all do well by their roles with those playing the children forming a believable family unit with a winning naturalness. Five-year-old Caroline Briscoe as the youngest von Trapp proves to be an accomplished trouper and seeing her play opposite McMahon, her real life mother, was an especial delight (tho you may not see her as the kids have been double cast).
Other than Sing-Along Sound of Music, this last of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s collaborations doesn’t lend itself to radical reinterpretation (it might be interesting to see it with an all-black or completely color-blind cast, however). But even if not revolutionary, when done as well as JPAS’ presentation is, Sound of Music makes for a most heartwarming treat.
Higgins: The Man, The Boat, The War at the WWII Museum’s Stage Door Canteen through Nov. 10
Most people have only the dimmest awareness as to whom Andrew Higgins was even though Dwight D. Eisenhower said of him “No Higgins, no D-Day” and Hitler called him “the new Noah.”
The WWII Museum hopes to enlighten visitors to its Stage Door Canteen about him and his vital contribution to the war effort with Higgins: The Man, The Boat, The War. What could’ve been just a dry Wikipedia entry come to life is, instead, a fascinating play-with-music that keeps you wondering “What happened next?”
Ron Gural’s script employs cadenced lines as well as more naturalistic dialog to create a portrait of a man who, if he hadn’t been born, could have been a character in a novel by Mark Twain or Horatio Alger or Jack London.
Andrew Jackson Higgins (1886-1952) began as a youthful entrepreneur. He made and lost a fortune or two in lumber and shipping (“Forest and boats–the two things I loved the most till I met my wife.”) as America dealt with WWI and the Depression. He wound up in New Orleans and went on to develop the amphibious LCVP (“Landing Craft, Vehicle, Personnel”) boats that were partly based on Japanese ones (long story), inspired by a cigar box (another story) and were crucial to our triumph over the Axis Forces.
Gural has period songs alternating with interesting biographical bits, portraying Higgins as a smart, if somewhat sly, man who was willing to wheel’n’deal to obtain what he wanted. He could be tough (especially when confronted by unions) but treated (and paid) men and women, blacks and whites equally long before that was fashionable, especially in the South.
I can’t say I fully understood (or cared about) all the shipbuilding talk (which the cast miraculously brings to vibrant life), but I got the general idea of how brilliant Higgins was, both as a designer and businessman. During the second act, some of the chronology jumps around a bit from 1937 to 1941 to 1944, but Gural makes it clear that Higgins knew how to get his way.
Shane LeCocq provides smooth, unobtrusive direction that well-utilizes the Canteen’s space along with apt choreography that illustrates changing dance styles. Harry Mayronne ably furnishes onstage piano accompaniment.
Robert Pavlovich astutely conveys Higgins’ can-do spirit. Making a welcome return to a NOLA stage, this actor’s innate affability tones down Higgins’ less appealing moments, keeping the audience always firmly on his side.
The five other cast members, which include Kaleb Babb and Sean Riley, effortlessly slip in and out of various roles. Bessie Smith’s Backwater Blues shows off Kathleen Moore’s smoky voice to great effect. Chloe Vallot does a cute job with Swingin’ on a Star while, during a passage as Higgins’ youngest daughter, Haley Bowden fetchingly expresses reflections of what it was like when the family lived on Prytania Street.
Despite its clunky title, Higgins: The Man, The Boat, The War ought to be seen by all our local schoolchildren (I don’t suppose a Higgins boat could transport the cast to schools in the area) as well as anyone interested in how we won World War II and the New Orleans connection to our victory.
Before the show, I enjoyed a terrific brunch from the American Sector’s kitchen. It began with a tangy Caesar Salad; if the dressing was lacking (I prefer a heavy pour), that was quickly remedied by the ever-efficient staff. My Crispy Boneless Fried Chicken Breast was slightly tough but otherwise, with its andouille gravy, excellent; its accompanying sweet potato hash had a subtle kick, the roasted Roma tomato bestowed a nice touch, and the entire dish served up delicious country heartiness.
The praline pecan creme brulee dessert was absolutely scrumptious. And harpist Ashley Toman’s playing of music from the great American songbook during the brunch equaled the tastiness of the meal.
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow at NOMA’s Besthoff Sculpture Garden through Nov. 10
The NOLA Project and playwright Pete McElligott have gifted this city with two of the finest, most memorable productions it has ever seen with Adventures in Wonderland and The Three Musketeers, his adaptations of classic novels.
Alas, while thoroughly appropriate for the Halloween season, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, McElligott’s retelling of four short Washington Irving stories now playing in City Park, doesn’t provide as much pleasure as his previous efforts.
Unlike with Wonderland and Musketeers, McElligott doesn’t seem to trust his source material which includes Rip Van Winkle, The Spectre Bridegroom and The Devil and Tom Walker as well as the title tale. So instead of giving us his take on Irving, he opts to frame the vignettes as a NOLA Project production that has been haunted by an evil spirit that’s been on a killing spree.
That might have been fine, but after an overlong general introduction, during which we’re repeatedly told “not to panic”, we get more talk about Irving himself. Even that might have been okay, but McElligott’s script is neither funny enough nor scary enough to keep an audience fully involved for Legend’s nearly two-and-a-half hour running time.
Instead, McElligott offers a strange combination of Story Theatre and Monty Python that plays like an off-putting dream in which you go to a NOLA Project show that’s bizarre in ways you wouldn’t expect. There’s a Slovenian housekeeper, middling slapstick, references to the Hi-Ho Lounge and other local sites, and a running gag involving Sheena Easton whose fifteen minutes of fame passed many, many years ago.
McElligott seems to acknowledge his script’s lack of clarity by having one character ask “I’m sorry, what’s going on?” and, later, another baldly declaim “We’re all a bit confused.” Even a kid, brought on stage as part of a demonic dream ballet (don’t ask) was heard to say “This is a little weird.”
Act Two offers less silly, pulled-in-by-the-seat-of-its-pants shtik and more straightforward, properly ghoulish storytelling and, as a result, is much more enjoyable.
Part of the blame for this overall muddle must go to Leslie Claverie who directed. Claverie is one of this town’s most talented actresses but, as a director, she’s relatively inexperienced. As such, she would have been well-advised to have gotten McElligott to trim his script down to 90 minutes which seems like a more suitable running time for such light-hearted fare.
The cast works overtime to keep this folderol afloat.
By turns worried and impatient, Keith Claverie is marvelous as always as he locates the character-based humor of his various roles. Natalie Boyd employs a gleefully wry approach even as she’s just a head in a wheelbarrow. Anna Toujas, portraying a shy understudy who’s gotten involved with the production “for therapy”, comes into her own in the second act when she relates The Legend of Sleepy Hollow with the help of three of her dearly departed castmates’ heads.
Maryam Fatima Foye and Matthew Rigdon as the evening’s putative producer and stage manager, respectively, each add to the ridiculousness, while Trina Beck, as the lone surviving member of the LPO, displays yet another talent of hers by playing the flute to comedic effect.
Admittedly, youngsters in the audience laughed throughout the performance at fart jokes and similarly jejune bits, but virtually the only moment that elicited a big smile from me was when one character spoke of “conjuring a devil” and, with perfect timing, a racoon entered upstage, lingered and, finally, moved on. Leave it to Mother Nature’s trickery to supply the perfect treat.
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