The mammoth Bill Kenwright year-long tour provides a perfect lens through which to examine the durability and the curiosity of The Sound of Music. On the 50th anniversary of the movie release it’s tempting to believe British audiences come more to see a re-enactment of Julie Andrews’ personal triumph than a sugared and Popishly corrupted version of Maria von Trapp’s journey running, to misquote Dorothy Parker, the gamut of emotions from A for Abbey to B for Baron.

Rather like Kennedy’s assassination two years before, everyone remembers when they first saw The Sound of Music and happily revisits each Christmas in a turkey-and-pudding-induced coma. In terms of comfort activity engendering that four-hour truce that settles over families between the Queen’s Speech and the fight over whose turn it is to empty the bloody dishwasher again, it’s right up there with the five-pound drum of Quality Street.

Historical accuracy had long been abandoned before Howard Lindsay and Russell Crouse got their hands on the ‘book’ but compared to the movie’s ability to illustrate the action with locations and a vast cast, the stage script is a stinker: the entire romantic plot is blown in one short speech of infant Gretel to Maria and for a decorated military strategist Von Trapp has lightning-fast changes of affection and intent which would really have him sedated in a Freudian clinic.

The most recent major production of The Sound of Music, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s extravaganza at the Palladium, cost £4 milllion. Kenwright is a master at the calculatedly reductive production and for a fraction of the spend delivers almost as much to satisfy provincial audiences: a sequence of lush and nicely-lit sets, especially if you sit far enough back not to see the brush-strokes on the landscape, a search-for-a-star heroine although not one he had to fund personally – Danielle Hope won the TV competition to be Dorothy in Wizard of Oz and putting her in a cheap blond wig but not bleaching her ferociously dark brows is a hallmark of the producer’s brand – and mostly casting good actors hungry enough to cover multiple roles and tour for Equity minimum. His most daring economy is to have some of the fresher-faced Nazis double as nuns.

Hope has had a meteoric career: at 22 having played two of the most iconic movie musical heroines with only a brief spell as Eponine in between, she is an engaging if not an entrancing Maria, playing on the character’s smarts and niceness. She’s pitch-perfect, but has been over-coached to disguise her flat Northern inflection (she’s from the same part of Manchester as me) and projects a stranger artificial enunciation even than Dame Julie’s Walton-on-Thames-by-way-of-Swiss-tax-exile vowels.

She deserves a better husband, though. Not because the 58-year old Georg von Trapp would probably be happier with Sarah Soetaert’s knockout Elsa Schraeder, surely the missing Gabor sister, but because Steven Houghton is more wooden than the surrounding forests. It amazed me to find he had released albums because it’s almost traditional now to cast a von Trapp who has television profile but not necessarily for singing. Although Hope has to belt out eight performances a week until January, the cast lists Lynden Edwards as ‘Alternative Captain’, so I’m guessing Wednesday matinees or Monday nights might be your best chance to see him.

Julie-ophiles hate the structure of the stage musical: you can feel them seething early on when Maria and Mother Abbess sing ‘My Favourite Things’ because “it doesn’t come there” but, boy, does it come everywhere else and unlike the film score you’re painfully aware how often some really childish songs are re-hashed, particularly ‘Do Re Mi’ and the insufferable ‘So Long, Farewell’ … “Adieu, to yieu, and yieu, and yieu” if you want the ear-worm for the rest of the day.  In fact it sounds as though there are only five tunes in the whole show, plus the out-takes that didn’t make it to the movie which are actually superior stuff: Elsa and Max’s two numbers ‘How Can Love Survive’ and the Nazi-sympathising one Disney thought was just too near the knuckle ‘No Way To Stop It’.

There are some lovely camp moments: Bill Deamer’s choreography is smart but often also smartly tongue-in-cheek and making Roger Dipper’s Rolf such a fey balletomane renders his importuning of under-age Liesel a bit less creepy.

And there’s “that” line. Although not delivered in a German accent, Mother Abbess Jan Hartley doesn’t shrink from it, nor is it changed – and with a twenty-piece orchestra, swelling organ and more reverb than a Jane Macdonald concert, she Climbs Ev’ry Mountain magnificently.

 

In the interests of claiming credit for the absolute thoroughness of 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.