Regent’s Park might not have any mountains, but even on a night filled with raindrops on the roses in Queen Mary’s Rose Garden and audience members huddled in warm plastic ponchos, its abundance of natural charms are still very much in evidence. It’s easy to be sniffy about The Sound of Music and it could be considered a very safe choice after last year’s interesting but conceptually overloaded Ragtime (it seems astonishing that no Rodgers and Hammerstein musical has been staged at the Open Air Theatre before), yet it has what can only be called a magical charm capable of winning over those who claim to be allergic to schmaltz. According to family legend, my Brecht-loving Austrian-Jewish grandfather kvetched like mad about having to take my aunt to see the film but by the end was moved to tears.
Despite having been a child who watched the film obsessively and wanted to be Brigitta, the experience of seeing it on stage for the first time has some interesting diversions for those expecting to know the script word-for-word. All the beloved songs (including the film’s ‘I Have Confidence’ and ‘Something Good’, while the less familiar ‘How Can Love Survive’ and ‘No Way to Stop It’ provide an effective foil to all the cock-eyed optimism) are marvellously sung and clear as a bell (credit must go to Nick Lidster’s sound design and Stephen Ridley’s musical direction).
Rachel Kavanaugh’s emotionally truthful and witty production speaks directly to the heart and has a pleasing briskness that prevents the more sugary aspects from cloying. Peter McKintosh offers a simple and elegant evocation of Mittel-Europe that nimbly glides from the abbey to the von Trapps’ schloss. Costumes are a postcard-perfect parade of coordinated sailor suits, dirndls and lederhosen, and the loveliest theatrical wedding I’ve ever seen is complete with bridesmaids in white dresses with blue satin sashes.
The children (Faye Brookes’s Liesl leads three teams of youngsters) are adorable and beautifully drilled, the nuns jolly, but, quite rightly, the evening belongs to Charlotte Wakefield (Olivier-nominated for Spring Awakening) as a glorious Maria, giving what must surely be a star-making performance. Wakefield is golden of voice, she delivers each lyric with sincerity and is capable of inspiring affection in all who encounter her (however unlikely it might be that Helen Hobson’s young-at-heart Mother Abbess would be on hugging terms with her postulants). When the Captain’s principles waiver when the Nazis invade his home, it’s Maria’s fortitude that gives him the strength to stick to his convictions.
Maria’s triumph is reuniting a traumatised family left to their own devices by an emotionally walled-in father. Michael Xavier is quite dashing as a saturnine Captain von Trapp with a sardonic charm reminiscent of Christopher Plummer crossed with Mr Rochester. When he shakes off all his stuffiness during ‘Something Good’ by removing his shoes and socks and dangles his feet in the moat, it’s almost as good as the way Plummer chuckles and taps Julie Andrews on the nose.
There’s touch of Noel Coward-esque astringency in the form of the opportunistic Elsa (an achingly chic Caroline Keiff – the kind of woman who wouldn’t be caught dead in a dirndl) and Max (Michael Matus), barometers of the political climate in 1930s Austria. Elsa Schraeder is just a Frau, not a Baroness (it’s actually the precociously observant Brigitta who accidentally scares Maria off and her parting with the Captain has more to do with ideological differences than jealousy over Maria) and less of a wicked stepmother who gloats about packing the children off to boarding school than a frivolous socialite willing to make friends with the Nazi invaders in order to hold on to her comfortable lifestyle (in the context of the piece, it’s hard to say what’s worse).
The heartfelt simplicity of Kavanaugh’s staging is a worthy match for the film’s Alpine scenery and the stakes at the Salzburg festival concert have never felt higher: a picture-perfect Aryan family being used as propaganda, singing against the “spider flag” (as Brigitta calls it), trapped by armed guards blocking the exits, their entire way of life coming to an abrupt end. Musical theatre at the Open Air Theatre is one of London’s most delicious treats and if any songwriting team made the world a better place, it was Rodgers and Hammerstein.