At the press night of Thom Southerland’s brilliantly-staged, been-so-long-in-the-water-it’s-shrunk-to-the-size-of-Southwark-Playhouse Titanic, there was considerable debate about whether it “mattered” if you knew the outcome of the story before seeing the musical. But sometimes knowing the story is what helps you go to the musical in the first place – at The Color Purple, it was patently women who’d read the influential book or seen the Spielberg movie as teenagers who were the most visibly moved by the Menier’s production.

Few small personal histories can have been blown so out of proportion as the tale of Maria Kutschera, a devoutly Catholic schoolteacher who married, at 22, a widowed Austrian U-boat commander twenty five years her senior and turned his seven children into a singing troupe.  Since the 1965 Robert Wise movie and the sweetly pure Julie Andrews portrayal, legend parts with reality and fans of The Sound of Music may be unaware Maria never actually trained to be a nun, that the von Trapps met Hitler in a restaurant in Munich, or that nobody climbed any mountains to escape from Austria, they just took a train to Italy.

Over time the film has become holy writ for its legion of fans, and the best service the Open Air Theatre’s clever production does is to return firmly to the 1959 Rodgers and Hammerstein stage book and score. In the casting of Charlotte Wakefield as a feisty, tomboyish, energetic and credibly youthful Maria, they lay the ghost not only of Andrews, but also of Mary Martin who created the role on Broadway when she was past 45, to bed.

Wakefield, first spotted as a confident Wendla in the Lyric Hammersmith’s Spring Awakening, is beyond remarkable: she sings on the dead centre of every note with clarity and definition but without Andrews’ specific Home Counties lilt, and it makes the lyrics seem newly minted.  It also emphasizes the fact that even Oscar Hammerstein had off days, because some of the rhymes are audibly clumsy and “like a lark who is learning to pray” is not a genuine simile in any aspect of life or literature.

The whole production feels like director Rachel Kavanaugh has taken the material down from the attic, washed it clean of the dust clinging to it from fifty years of sentimentality and pegged it out on a line strung between the Regent’s Park trees. It doesn’t push any boundaries, but it does more with its budget and location than Andrew Lloyd Webber’s multi-million pound investment at the Palladium.

Kavanaugh’s wise casting choices, made in tandem with casting director Pippa Ailion, also break moulds. Captain von Trapp is traditionally played by a handsome popular actor who can’t sing and generally gets dubbed or replaced, like Simon Shepherd two days into the Palladium previews, or the entirely unsuitable Christopher Plummer in the film: Michael Xavier though has perfect West End leading man experience, and combines the unbending characterization with a warm and tuneful singing voice: but ultimately his performance is rather like his stage directions – he strides purposefully up or down the set without actually arriving anywhere, and in the romantic clinches he fits less comfortably with Wakefield than you could wish.

Helen Hobson rinses every ounce of starch out of the wimple as Mother Abbess and manages the feat of making “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” sound neither like an unassailable Wagnerian aria, nor a noisy afternoon on a football terrace. It’s certainly the most warmly approachable and engaging performance of this part I’ve ever seen.

The von Trapp children are played by rotating teams, but on our press night they were unforced, clearly-sung and even though the pigtailed Brigitta and Louisa seemed to be auditioning forMatilda, entirely natural: Alistair David’s multi-directional choreography certainly brings out their best and adds drama and interest to their otherwise black-and-white personalities.

The stage show makes much more than the movie out of the conflict between the proudly Austrian Georg von Trapp and his friends and neighbours who might counsel cooperation with Germany in the coming months. This forms the rift in his relationship with Baroness Elsa Schraeder, beautifully illustrated in Caroline Keiff’s visually and musically perfect performance. She has two great numbers with the always-reliable Michael Matus, who plays musical impresario Max Detweiler, the upbeat “How Can Love Survive” in which they debate how tough it is for two wealthy people to date when neither can be seen to be sacrificing him or herself for the other, and the surprisingly thoughtful – for Sound of Music – “No Way To Stop It” in which the inevitability of political appeasement is articulated.

If there’s a weakness in the performances it’s the unconvincing secondary romance between eldest daughter Liesl, a solid but uncharismatic Faye Brookes, and Joshua Tonks’ Fassbinder-camp telegraph-boy-turned-Hitler-Youth Rolf Gruber. It made it harder to care that circumstances should separate them, or appreciate his loyalty in not giving them up to the Germans.

The moated set by Peter McKintosh serves all purposes – mostly by changing its doorways and windows to indicate Nonnberg Abbey, the von Trapp mansion or the Salzburger Festspielhaus, and Maria uses the stairways of the auditorium to make her first entrance from the mountains. Unfortunately, some of her thunder was stolen by a chubby London pigeon which chose the same moment to walk purposefully over one of the moat’s bridges, across the stage, and exit by the other. It’s that sort of incident that makes the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park such a thoroughly enjoyable experience and whilst this production isn’t groundbreaking or controversial, it fits its setting perfectly.

Incidentally, and in the interests of claiming credit for the absolute thoroughness of One Stop Arts’ journalistic research: I’d like to point out I am possibly the only reviewer who has actually slept in the von Trapp villa in Salzburg. In the bedroom of Maria’s eldest daughter.  With a storm in the night.

Date reviewed: Tuesday 6th August 2013

Image © Johan Persson

One Stop ArtsOriginally published on One Stop Arts.