Review: Brilliant Acting and Action in The Sound of Music

This year’s theatrical run of The Sound of Music at the Sands Theatre at Marina Bay Sands indexes an impressive return for the international tour. 
The Sound of Music Singapore
Photo: Matthew Murphy/BASE Entertainment Asia

The edelweiss flower is a native flower of Austria; it is white, doggedly resilient, and lives for as long as seven years despite harsh weather conditions and the rocky ground from which it grows. In many ways, the musical The Sound of Music is like the edelweiss flower, not least for a song in it also called ‘Edelweiss’ – it has thrived far longer in popular imagination than one would expect of a musical, much less a musical from the 70s; it has survived harsh criticism from intellectual papers and magazines. It is also surprisingly beautiful. 

The Sound of Music will be showing in the Sands Theatre at Marina Bay Sands from 22 Nov to 18 Dec, as the first international musical since the beginning of the pandemic. The last time I watched a live musical was four years ago, in 2019 – it was Matilda, and even from my seat an insurmountable distance from the stage, rendering actors mere specks, I was electrified by the sheer force of the vocal performances that seemed to fill the cavernous theatre like light into a greenhouse. Four years later, granted a seat a blessedly short distance from the stage, I watched The Sound of Music.

With The Sound of Music, I was wonderfully surprised at the production’s laser-like attention to detail, the astonishing creativity with which sets were interacted with to portray the scene in deft but clever strokes, and the slight deviations from the original for character redemption. What struck me, above all, was the confidence with which scenes were merged and stretched to fit new lines and sequences, rendering the musical with a dreamlike quality and its characters sliding expertly back and forth on a rapidly unravelling plane of existence. It’s difficult to imagine a better, cleverer, more sensitive retelling of the production, especially for a story set in Nazi Austria retold for a Southeast Asian audience. 

Photo: BASE Entertainment Asia. Maria (Jill-Christine Wiley) onstage.

At the core of the story is a tale of exploration and self-empowerment. Maria Rainer (Jill- Christine Wiley) is playful, prone to bursts of song, and a very bad nun at the Nonnberg Abbey in Salzberg, Austria. Her tardiness is revealed in the first scene as the nuns line up to sing the Dixit Dominus and a gap in the line points glaringly to her absence. “How do you find a word that means Maria? A flibbertigibbet! A will-o-the-wisp! A clown!” Three nuns sing, none too kindly, in the waggish, catchy song which is ‘How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria’. In the next scene, enraptured by the beauty of the mountainside and sad to leave, Maria sings ‘The Sound of Music’ with infectious candour. 

It’s worth noting the subtle but effective sets in scenes of the abbey: the stage is closed off to a dark, claustrophobic gap whenever Maria and the nuns converse – big enough for them to walk, too small to wander. Compare this to the sprawling, almost garish landscapes of the von Trapp family house – the powerful visual contrast is telling of the expectations Maria has boxed herself into and the freedom she takes on, first hesitantly, then joyfully, then rejects. 

Christine-Wiley, as Maria, wears a sundress as well as a wimple. She leaps from one emotional register to the next like the skilled and practised movements of a ballet dancer; Trevor Martin’s (who plays Baron von Trapp) method is akin to breakdancing. For a taste of the outside world, Maria is sent to the von Trapp family for a short stint as governess to the volatile family of seven. If the core of the story is female liberation, encompassing it is a love story. In the eventual lovers’ first meeting, she takes in the sprawling mansion as von Trapp appears, implacable from the start, at the top of the staircase on the left of the stage. For a man who appears to be measured in every way conceivable, Martin as von Trapp gives the impression of constantly shouting. It takes surprisingly quickly for cracks in his armour to appear – when Maria tells him off for neglecting his kids, I was astonished to hear his voice tremble in his admittance: “I don’t know my children.” Emotions revealed are not raw but tough, cooked perhaps by the heated tension of being onstage. 

Photo: BASE Entertainment Asia. Maria and the kids’ first meeting.

And, oh, the kids! At the heels of each tense scene come the seven to douse the flames with their constant giddy joy, distilling the bile of the steadily souring plot into something sweeter, something easier to swallow. Several of the kids, notably, are actors based in Singapore, who execute their roles with astonishing skill. Lauren O’Brien is brilliant as Lisel – she shines most with Rolf (played by Daniel Fullerton) in ‘Sixteen Going on Seventeen’, where they perform a flighty mating dance and end with a quick but passionate kiss, surprising both of them. What’s especially remarkable is their ability to fill up the immense stage despite their smallness as a pair, not just through the power of their voices but their sprawling performances, both physically and emotionally. Fullerton can swing O’Brien up into the air at the climax of an exuberant dance, but he can also swing effortlessly between anxiety and hope, euphoria and fear. Joining them moments before ‘Sixteen Going on Seventeen’ is the debonair Baroness Elsa Schraeger (played by Annie Sherman) and the flamboyant, quick-witted Maximilian Detweiler (played by Joshua La Force), changing the feel of the musical from informative to atmospheric in their digressive and shimmering tête-à-têtes.  

The Sound of Music Singapore
Photo: BASE Entertainment Asia. From left to right: Max (Joshua Laforce), Baron von Trapp (Trevor Martin) and Elsa Shraeger (Annie Sherman).

If we are to view the plot of The Sound Of Music as a spiral – pardon the literary device – themes of liberation and exploration would be dead centre, like a bullseye. Viewing the rich plot as merely linear doesn’t do the themes that overlap each other justice, so viewing it as a spiral, that radiates outwards, charting new thematic territory as a whole rather than in a straight line, feels right. Coiling outwards towards the middle is a love story, and phasing out towards the end is political drama. Apart from being a light-hearted rom-com, it’s also an implicit reckoning with how racism and hatred soaks through a society under totalitarian rule. It drifts away from having Maria as a main character to von Trapp taking the reins of their collective fate.

With all its riotous exuberance, it initially seems difficult to reconcile domestic bliss with fraught political tension, but it’s all frighteningly real. On 11 March 1938, Nazi Germany annexed Austria, the first of many countries subject to the Nazis’ territorial aggression. Rolf falls to the Nazis by joining the Hitler Youth, the state-driven and murderous ethos of which changes his personality irreversibly, turning him from bubbly, romantic boy to emotionless cog in the Nazi machine. Baroness Schraeger and Max are impassive towards the Nazis – “we should be grateful that at least the Anschluss went peacefully!” – to von Trapp’s rage: “Max, it’s very good you don’t have character, because if you did I’d hate you”. 

It’s at this volatile stage that the production’s canny visual sense becomes the most obvious. In the scene where the Nazis give von Trapp his commission to serve as naval officer in the Third Reich, they’re inside his house, with the windowed partition slicing the stage horizontally in half. As they speak, a Nazi stormtrooper stations himself firmly behind the partition, visible through the windows, as though outside the house. Now, I can’t say I’m an expert in theatre – it’s more the contrary – but I gasped at this bit. In another scene, where the von Trapp family performs at the festival in front of huge Nazi flags and quickly leaves to escape the Nazis, there was an awe-striking moment on stage where you can see the glare of torchlights through the flags themselves as the Nazis search for them backstage. 

When The Sound of Music was first released in 1965, in some cities in the United States, the number of tickets sold exceeded the total population. In Salt Lake City, Utah (population 199,300), for example, 309,000 tickets were sold in forty weeks. If watching theatre today was as accessible as watching films at the cinema, I suspect this modern rendition would garner the same popularity. If an audience to The Sound of Music, where it opened two weeks ago, does not fill you with hope for the future, respect for musicals of old, and leave you breathless with joy as the lights turn on, then the fault will be less with The Sound of Music, we suspect, than with you. 

The Sound of Music international tour will be playing at the Marina Bay Sands Sands Theatre from now to 18th December. Book your tickets here.