Review: The Sound of Music at The Academy Theatre

Meadville’s Academy Theatre once again brings to the stage a musical we all know and some of us love, The Sound of Music, under the gentle and graceful direction of Shawn Clerkin. When you watch a musical for the thirtieth time in your life, you honestly are just hoping to stay invested enough for two to three hours. But this local production makes itself memorable and provides a sweet and somber story to the local community.

The Sound of Music opened on Broadway in 1959, but what many don’t realize is that it had its origins in a memoir by Maria Augusta von Trapp called The Story of the Trapp Family Singers. Yes, the rise of Nazi Germany is horrifyingly real, and the awareness of this memoir makes the musical hit much harder. Broadway naturally sprinkled its showbiz charm all over this work of nonfiction, so there were many changes from page to stage. But in reality, Maria did leave an abbey to work for a man with a lot of children, whom she would later marry and flee Austria with. (No, they did not actually climb over a mountain.)

While the musical is way more delightful than 1930s Austria, there is a certain solemnity by which some audiences may deem the show itself tiresome, and others may, perhaps more accurately, describe it as reminiscent of the times. In fact, one of the joys of a show like this is stepping back into history (or, history adjacent), through a combination of sets and costumes and musical numbers, all of which the Academy does well. But what stands out the most are some of the individual performances.

Take, for instance, Leah Hillgrove, who plays Georg’s soon-to-be wife Elsa Schrader. I remember despising this character as a child, as is often the case for the “other woman” in cinema. She is always portrayed as the unlikeable, burnt first pancake that you simply throw away. But Hillgrove, a member of the Actors Equity Association who has previously performed with Pittsburgh CLO and Pittsburgh Musical Theatre, makes us kind of like Elsa Schrader, which is unsettling in the best way. Along with stunning vocals and charisma, we finally see that a woman can be a perfectly lovely human being and (SPOILER) still not be the one.

Then there is Cynthia Harding, who fervently guides Maria through much confusion as Mother Abbess. She spends the show belting these operatic soprano notes in a way that is barely human, commanding the stage with all the otherworldly power that any good nun should have.

Aubrey Garrison must of course be mentioned, for as our leading lady, Maria, she leaves the playful eccentricities of Julie Andrews’ acting behind and brings her own earnest, pensive interpretation to the stage. 

Photo Credit: Academy Theatre

But the performance that made this show most memorable was that of Grace Worley as Liesl von Trapp. Sixteen Going On Seventeen is the highly misogynistic duet between her and Rolf the Nazi (played by Jace Digiacomo, another delight until he becomes a Nazi), which should make any present-day woman aggravated over the fact that this teenage girl is so unabashedly dependent on a man for her sense of worth. Instead of accepting this, Grace stomps in with her feminist energy and basically mocks the song, rolling her eyes and flicking her hands derisively, taking full control of the situation. We. Are. Here for it. And this on top of beautiful vocals and a warm demeanor? Audiences may have previously seen Grace manning the light board, but we can only hope she stays in the stage light instead of placing others in it.

The Academy’s The Sound of Music is quite literally a family show, with a cast comprised of many theatre-loving households. It appears that the entire family of Richard Kress (Captain von Trapp) said “all or nothing, gosh dang it” and took to the stage together. This includes the already-budding talents of Natalie Kress, who delivers a most lovable Gretl von Trapp and makes you want to stick her in every Academy show somewhere, regardless of whether she’s needed or not. The Graybills, the Schnaubers—these names are certainly recognized within the theatre community and appear multiple times in the program. And this is the nature of the story, right? Bringing families together since the film’s release in 1965 (and in some cases, even earlier) to revel in the hopefulness of love, kinship, and overcoming nightmarish political turmoil. Yes, the musical itself can feel a bit drab at times, but you can’t do an extravagant musical about Nazi Germany. Unless you do Cabaret, but we already did that.

Go see the Academy Theatre’s take on The Sound of Music. I swear the five minutes of No-Man-Can-Tell-Me-What-To-Do Liesl is enough to make it worth your while.

Photo Credit: Academy Theatre
  • Review by: BRENNA THUMMLER
    Spotlight 814

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