'Tis the Tradition Season
The two faces of theater, as most everyone knows, are the masks of tragedy and comedy. But perhaps a better bifurcation would be between the theater of challenge and that of tradition. The theater of tradition promotes cultural assumptions. The best of this celebrates enduring values and communities; the worst sedates its audiences with sugary escapism. The theater of challenge critiques cultural assumptions, producing plays that make you think or squirm. The best of this creates healthy debate and soul-searching; the worst bludgeons its audiences with propaganda.
The South Florida season this fall has tipped mostly to the theater of challenge, but as the holiday season approaches, tradition is making a comeback. The local flagship of this style is clearly the Actors' Playhouse in Coral Gables, which has mounted a charming, tuneful production of a classic, The Sound of Music. Like most traditional Broadway musicals, The Sound of Music is an adaptation, in this instance, of the real-life adventures of the musical von Trapp family of Austria. The well-known story follows young, lovely Maria Rainer, who in 1938 reluctantly takes a job as the governess of the seven young children of Capt. Georg von Trapp, a retired Austrian naval officer. Spirited Maria immediately butts heads with the strict, reserved captain, but she wows his kids and teaches them the joys of music. Eventually Maria and the captain fall in love, but as Nazism spreads across the land, they must flee with the children across the Alps to safety in Switzerland.
The Broadway playwriting team of Howard Lindsey and Russel Crouse (Life with Father, Anything Goes) adapted this saga as the basis for the musical, which features more character development than most, but its characters still seem rather saintly, and the show has always had the reputation of being more saccharine than necessary. Still, with Richard Rodgers' great, flowing score and Oscar Hammerstein's lively lyrics, The Sound of Music has become an enduring, beloved classic. Those seeking the pleasures of traditional theater will find their bliss at the Playhouse's Miracle Theatre.
The company is playing to its strengths. As with last season's popular The King & I, the playhouse again delivers a huge production with assurance. Artistic Director David Arisco delivers crisp staging, and his design team -- set designer M.P. Amico, costume designer Catherine Zuber, and especially lighting designer Ginny Adams -- renders top-rank support. The cast is strong overall, led by Jennifer Hughes as Maria. Hughes gives, yes, a spirited, winsome performance, and she brings more vocal expression and emotional texture than Julie Andrews, the original Maria, did. As Capt. von Trapp, Michael Scott is dignified and soulful but lacks much military bearing, and his casual, relaxed style works against the story. This captain doesn't drum up much conflict with Maria, and the play suffers for it.
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The supporting cast is solid, notably Sandy Ives as a graceful Elsa Schraeder, the captain's erstwhile fiancée, who becomes Maria's rival. This role is usually played as a cold fish, but Ives' take makes Elsa much more dimensioned and hence more formidable a rival. As Maria's mentor, the Mother Abbess, Mary Grace Gordon absolutely nails the famous first-act-ender, "Climb Ev'ry Mountain," while Gary Marachek romps as the droll theater impresario, Max Detweiler.
Praise also must be given to the splendid cast of young performers, two casts actually, who alternate performances. Although space prevents mentioning all, I must call your attention to Karina Padura, all of 7 years old, who is Gretl, the littlest von Trapp. Her supremely focused performance nearly stole the show on opening night. She alternates the role with Laura Sky Herman, even younger at 5. Many of the children in the cast came up through the playhouse's conservatory, which offers acting classes for children ages 5 to 18. Traditions need new generations to carry them on.
The big Broadway musical isn't the only tradition on view these days. The M Ensemble serves some solid, old-fashioned family drama with The Old Settler, John Henry Redwood's tale of two sisters in the Harlem of the 1940s.
Elizabeth Johnson is an unmarried middle-aged woman who is called an "old settler" (old maid) behind her back. She lives with her opinionated sister, Quilly, who long ago married Elizabeth's onetime lover, causing a decades-long rift between the sisters. Into this household comes a sweet, naive Southern man, Husband Witherspoon, who has arrived in Harlem in pursuit of his elusive girlfriend, Lou Bessie Preston. Husband is a shy mama's boy who longs for Lou Bessie but is uncomfortable in the fast-paced big city. During his stay at Elizabeth's, the pair strikes up a friendship that turns into a May/September romance, a relationship that causes more than one upheaval.
Redwood's play has many pleasures. His characters are fully drawn and touching. The story, set in Harlem's heyday, references all sorts of cultural aspects, from jazz to literature, from the Savoy Ballroom to Detroit Red, who came to be better-known as Malcolm X. The play has a real sense of time and place, and after a while, you really feel transported watching it.
The production design aids this time travel. E. Marcus Smith's set brings in authentic detail -- everything from the plates to the radio are pulled from the 1940s. The uncredited costume design is equally evocative. Same goes for Apon Nichol's delicate lighting design, though this is marred somewhat by awkward, unnecessarily abrupt light shifts.
The cast features only one experienced performer, Dorothy J. Morrison, as the wisecracking Quilley, but it is a credit to director Jerry Maple Jr. that the rest of the ensemble certainly holds its own. Kwame Riley does well as the slow-speaking, timid Husband, while the statuesque, striking Amaali turns Lou Bessie into a primping, posing femme fatale. But this production's great find is Carolyn Johnson in the title role. Johnson, who makes her professional debut here, brings an emotional honesty and focus that belie her lack of experience. Let's hope she will be seen again, and soon, on area stages.
The M Ensemble, which has been producing theater "to promote the African-American culture and experience" in South Florida, picked up a special Carbonell Award last month in recognition of its more than 30 years of arts service. If you haven't dropped by the company's dandy, comfortable space, now is a good time to enjoy this enduring South Florida tradition.
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