‘Sound of Music’: Good Production of a Great Play

Mill Mountain Theatre’s production of “The Sound of Music” got off to a bang last night–quite literally–when a large piece of the set came crashing to the floor just after the opening number. The house manager stormed the stage from the control booth, announcing loudly to the full house that everything was under control. About three minutes later, he charged back up the stairs, bellowing that the problem was fixed and the play would resume momentarily.

Shortly thereafter, Emma Leigh Gwin, playing Maria Rainer, twirled onto the stage singing “The hills are alive …” in a beautiful operatic soprano, as a grateful audience held its breath and then thundered its approval.

It was a dramatic beginning to one of American theatre’s most beloved stories, that of the Austrian von Trapp family singers at the brink of World War II. Ms. Gwin, Mill Mountain Theatre’s teaching artist, stars as the young nun candidate who is sent as a governess to the von Trapps to help care for the children of Captain von Trapp, a widower, played by stage and TV veteran Timothy Booth. Von Trapp runs his family like one of his ships and Maria brings warmth, understanding, love and music to the children, who have a history of making short work of governesses. They fall in love with her. So does Capt. von Trapp.

And there lies the rub. The Nazis want von Trapp to captain one of their ships and to send him off immediately. The rest you know.

This is a lavish production with heavy emphasis on costuming and sets (Jimmy Ray Ward, who recently won a Perry F. Kendig award for excellence in the arts). Tess Marshall, as Elsa Schraeder (a Shenandoah Conservatory grad with some hefty credits) is one of the primary beneficiaries of the costuming (by Jennie Ruhland), wearing some elegant late-1930s gowns, with authentic hair and makeup. She sings nicely, as well.

The children are all locals (and I only got to see one set of the two who perform). On opening night the talent among these youngsters–developed by Mill Mountain–was striking. Precocious Cave Spring third-grader Natalie Thorell as Gretl pretty much stole the audience’s collective heart from her first moment on stage to her last. But it was Ellen Frary, a William Byrd High School junior, as Liesl who demonstrated a level of talent that said “promise” consistently as she sang and danced with the professionals on stage. There are 14 children engaged for “The Sound of Music,” all local, all sufficiently talented to be cast in a professional production.

Much of the rest of the cast has Roanoke or Mill Mountain credits, led by well-known veterans Emma Sala (recent Hollins theatre grad, and daughter of a theatrical family) in two roles, MaryJean Levin as the von Trapp’s crusty maid and Patrick Kennerly as a nasty Nazi. Booth and Mary Grace Gordon (Mother Abbess, she of the “Climb every mountain, ford every stream …” show-stopper) are the only equity actors involved.

Directing this thoroughly entertaining production are Mill Mountain Artistic Director Ginger Poole (also choreographer) and Christopher Costanho.

The 2019 holiday season offering from Roanoke’s premier professional theatre is exactly what you’d expect: professional, entertaining and emotional (I kept having to surreptitiously wipe away tears). It’s a good production of a great story.

(The show runs through Dec. 22. Tickets are $20-$38 and you can order them here.)

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