There is no mention of Christmas in “The Sound of Music.” Yet the musical — set in Austria in the late 1930s — has become a holiday season staple for The Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, which presented it at that point in the year in 2003 (with the cast including child actor Nick Jonas, later internationally famous as one of The Jonas Brothers) and 2012. The current production of it that began previews on Dec. 2 and runs through Jan. 1 was originally scheduled for 2020, but postponed because of the pandemic.
“The Sound of Music” has earned its holiday season status through its timeless music, and its uplifting themes of true love, family togetherness, and standing up for what is right in the face of a horror like Nazism. Even those who has never seen the 1959 musical onstage (or its megahit 1965 Julie Andrews movie) are probably familiar with standards from the glorious Rodgers & Hammerstein score such as “My Favorite Things,” “Do-Re-Mi,” “Sixteen Going on Seventeen,” “(How Do You Solve a Problem Like) Maria” and “Climb Ev’ry Mountain.” (“I Have Confidence” and “Something Good,” two songs Richard Rodgers wrote for the movie on his own after Oscar Hammerstein II died in 1960, are also included in this production, by the way.)
Sadley, the political aspect of the story has proven to be timeless, too, as authoritarianism continues to be an issue all over the world. Among the characters in the musical are gun-toting Nazis. Granted, they are only onstage briefly, but this still packs a jolt in what is essentially a wholesome bit of family entertainment.
The Paper Mill Playhouse production — directed by the theater’s producing artistic director, Mark S. Hoebee — is straightforward and traditional. It even looks familiar, as its scenic design and costume design (by Kelly James Tighe and Leon Dobkowski, respectively) are based on the original scenic design and costume design (by James Fouchard and Catherine Zuber, respectively). Unlike previous Paper Mill productions of this musical, it does have colorblind casting, but that’s such a non-issue in 2022 that I hesitate to even mention it.
Cast members have uniformly gorgeous voices, and the children in the cast handle their parts flawlessly. Ashley Blanchet radiates warmth as Maria Rainer, the young woman who leaves a nunnery to take care of the seven von Trapp children after their mother dies, and brings some music into their drab lives. Graham Rowat sings with great tenderness under his gruff exterior as Capt. Georg von Trapp — the children’s father, Maria’s love interest, and a heroic man who doesn’t hesitate for a second when it comes time to stand up to the Nazis.
Special mention has to go to Cáitlín Burke as the nunnery’s Mother Abbess, a wise woman who offers Maria guidance; with her powerhouse voice, she makes “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” a show-stopper. And Gavin Lee shows sharp comic timing as the wise-cracking Max Detweiler, who is responsible for much of the show’s comic relief. A friend of Capt. von Trapp and a festival producer who wants to showcase the children’s singing ability, he is also a cynic who is willing to go along with what the Nazis want in order to protect himself, though he does have a moment of bravery that makes him more sympathetic.
“The Sound of Music” is one of five musicals that make up the Paper Mill’s 2022-23 season; the others (“On Your Feet! The Story of Emilio and Gloria Estefan,” “Hercules,” “Murder on the Orient Express” and “Rent) are all more modern. There is a time and a place for everything, though, and if the Paper Mill wants to continue bringing back “The Sound of Music” during the holiday season once a decade or so, that’s fine with me. Its songs will always be worth hearing and its message will, I suspect, always remain relevant.
“The Sound of Music” runs at The Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn through Jan. 1. Visit papermill.org.
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Thanks for this review. But it’s hard to tell: did you like it? Do you recommend it?
Sorry, I thought it was clear that I liked it, but yes, I definitely recommend it.