Arts & Culture

The hills are alive with The Sound of Music at the Arts Club

By Lorraine Graves

Published 3:40 PST, Wed November 20, 2019

Last Updated: 1:05 PST, Fri December 6, 2019

A book written by a widowed mother to support her children turned into a hit Broadway musical by Rogers and Hammerstein. Then, The Sound of Music became a blockbuster movie the moment it premiered on March 2, 1965.

The weather was cool and dry in Richmond that spring as people lined up around the block to see the hit movie. Or perhaps they waited until the warmer weather, when it came to outdoor theatres like the Delta Drive-In Theatre near No. 5 Road and Cambie Road. Whatever the case, it was a phenomenon not rivaled until E.T. or Star Wars. It is still one of the top 10 highest grossing movies in English. 

This year, The Arts Club Theatre brings The Sound of Music back to its theatrical roots at the old time theatre, The Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage. The Stanley was built in the height of the Dirty Thirties where, for a nickel, people could imagine away their worries, at least until the movie ended. 

This musical is set in the same era, in Austria, just before the Anschluss, the invasion and occupation of independent Austria by Hitler. This history plays a pivotal role in the musical, just as it did for young Canadians who soon found themselves overseas, fighting in the Second World War. 

But, as the clouds of war loomed, in the mountains of rural Austria, the hills were alive with the sound of music. 

The play opens with utterly ethereal Latin chant as the nuns of the abbey sing as they process with flickering candles to evening worship – a bonus scene from the original stage musical not in the movie. 

The singing throughout rang true, even with the youngest actors playing the children of the von Trapp family. 

Each performer could be singled out for their performance. 

As the Baron, Captain Georg von Trapp, the opening notes of Jonathan Winsby’s first song made both my companion and I sit up and take notice. His rich baritone melted our hearts. 

Andrew Cownden, long known to Bard on the Beach fans, tones down his Shakespearian court-jester and plays Max Detweiler, the mooch with a plan, far better than the actor in the movie version.  Cownden’s humour is gentle and clear, never clownish. 

People doubled up on smaller roles as well as moving the set pieces while in costume. It worked with perhaps one exception. 

One of the young postulants, nuns in training, was not particularly, well, what you would expect. Later, when we saw Steveston resident, Jason Sakaki as the young love interest Rolf, the light went on. (He had doubled up as that postulant.) Used to seeing Sakaki in acting-only roles, his finesse at singing and dancing came as a surprise. Sakaki is one young actor to watch, a true triple threat.  

Meghan Gardiner – long known to Richmond Gateway audiences for her humour and singing in 2018’s I Lost My Husband and the author of last year’s powerful Gross Misconduct – plays the ultra-wealthy widow with eyes for the Baron von Trapp, Elsa Schraeder. Gardiner shows us a more multi-faceted, warmer Elsa who elegantly wins the Baron’s heart then just as elegantly lets him go when his love for Maria, ably played by Synthia Yusuf, becomes too obvious to ignore. 

My companion for the evening grew up in East Germany, with an Austrian mother. I felt her discomfort at how German people, not necessarily Nazi’s, were unsubtly portrayed in contrast to Austrians. It was something I had never thought about before. 

Based on Maria von Trapp's 1949 memoir, The Story of the Trapp Family Singers, first written when the wounds of war were fresh, those anti-German attitudes permeate this musical that otherwise is a frothy love story. 

Tellingly, The Sound of Music has not been translated into German and is unknown there.   

The Arts Club’s sets, designed by Drew Facey, who also did the outstanding costume design, were grand. The church with soaring pillars and stained glass and the baronial mansion’s opulence provided the perfect setting. The outdoor scenes in the mountainous hills couldn’t hold a candle to the movie’s helicopter shots of Maria singing atop a mountain but the backdrop filled the bill. It is the difference between a major motion picture and the advantage of human beings performing live right in front of you. 

Another advantage of stage over screen as executive director, Peter Cathie White said, “With Arts Club musicals we use live music. Our six musicians are up in the top lounge performing tonight.”

While the guitar used on stage by the actors was slightly out of tune, the orchestra was pitch and cue perfect, setting the mood and backing the musical numbers with finesse as only a skilled, responsive, live orchestra can do. The emotion rings truer when the singers and musicians have this interplay instead of the singers having to follow the set metre and timing of a backing track. Cameron Wilson’s violin and mandolin lines particularly added beauty and poignancy to the production. 

Also of note was the audience with a significant number of young children. I had concerns but their attention was rapt from the moment the performance began until the closing curtain two hours and 45 minutes later though a few were limp, asleep by the end. The four-year-old behind us twice whispered ever so quietly to her grandmother for clarification of the plot. She was barely audible but the older man, who kept loudly shushing her, disturbed most of the nearby audience. 

Lastly, another reason to attend an Arts Club premiere at the Stanley is the tarts. They are buttery with a creamy New York cheese cake filling, and oh so luscious. Or, if you cannot make it to an opening night, you could go to sponsor, Anna’s Cake House, and stock up on your own. The closest one is in Lansdowne Centre, right here in Richmond. (Call ahead to see if they are in stock.)

So, from the sweet and creamy tarts at the reception, all the way back to the play’s ethereal beginning, this story, that has stolen our hearts for over 60 years, lives on at the Arts Club Stanley Alliance Theatre throughout the Christmas season. 

Suitable for all ages, The Arts Club’s production of The Sound of Music runs through Jan. 5 at the Stanley, 2750 Granville St. (near West 12th Avenue.), Vancouver. There are special sing-along performances on Dec. 26 at 7:30 p.m. and Jan. 4 at 2 p.m. (dirndls and lederhosen optional) 

For tickets, trailers and background information on The Sounds of Music go to artsclub.com

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