There's an effervescent joy permeating the Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse's The Sound of Music from beginning to end - minus the Nazi involvement, of course. Director/choreographer Jim Hesselman's production exudes an infectious glee that, for me, lifts this Rodgers & Hammerstein classic to new heights of performance pleasure. And as Hesselman must know that audiences take great delight in its composers' cherished musical and remember it fondly, he plays to those happy memories.
The source of this production's wellspring of cheer is, without a doubt, Lauren VanSpeybroeck's portrayal of Maria, the nun-in-training assigned to nanny the von Trapp children. There's an elation in her performance layered with an ever-present hope and optimism; even in Maria's disappointment, such as when she's sent away from the abbey, VanSpeybroeck seems to measure the weight of her new lot in life, and then move on, and make the most of it. (When she first meets the children and Autumn Loose's charming Liesl insists that she doesn't need a governess, VanSpeybroeck's response - "I'm glad you told me; we'll just be friends" - is genuine rather than patronizing.)
VanSpeybroeck's casting also creates an interesting dynamic in this familiar story, in that Brian Bowman's Captain von Trapp, who looks to be in his mid- to upper-30s, is left to choose between the young Maria (VanSpeybroeck is only 19) and Kimberly Furness' Elsa - a woman closer to his age, or perhaps even a bit older. With this Maria so close in age to the von Trapp children, the oldest of whom is 16, there's also a different meaning now when the captain sings, "For here you are, standing there, loving me whether or not you should" in the song "I Must Have Done Something Good." Thankfully, though, Bowman's sincerity and decision to play von Trapp as aloof and self-protective rather than coldly militaristic renders him sympathetic, and also softens the blow of the pending May-December romance ... which is, in reality, more of a May-September romance. Given Maria's naïveté and Circa '21's casting, this story could easily read as von Trapp taking advantage of a younger woman's wide-eyed optimism. However, Bowman's approach avoids any sense of that, especially as he lets down his guard and shows his true loving nature.
What's also intriguing in this Sound of Music is the way the age difference affects Maria's relationship with Elsa. Instead of an equal fight for von Trapp, there's an intrinsic sense that Elsa feels threatened by Maria's youthfulness. And with the way Furness plays Elsa, there isn't a sense that she's truly in love with von Trapp anyway; it feels more like, given their financial standings, their relationship would make for a good business partnership. Elsa is disappointed when she loses the captain to Maria, but concedes willingly, as though never deeply attached in the first place. (Furness, I must say, deliciously excels at playing rich bitches.)
Otherwise, this production is a buoyant trip down a musical memory lane. The children - who, except for Loose, are played in rotating performances by two actors each - are enchantingly jubilant and precocious, while those portraying the nuns (Regina Harbour and Becky Lee Hinton especially) pepper their roles with the right blend of attitude and reserved wisdom. Cody King's amiable Rolf shares a lovely duet with Loose in "Sixteen Going On Seventeen," which Hesselman keeps pleasingly simple, like the rest of his choreography. Brad Hauskins is nicely subdued, going for a smidge of sarcasm rather than a handful of flamboyancy, as Max, the family friend who books the music festival at which the von Trapp Family Singers perform. In truth, the show's only true disappointment lies in the grandeur of the set, for which no designer is listed in the program, being downplayed through scenic artist Susan Holgersson's bland combination of greens and light browns. (The dull look is unfortunate primarily because the scenic design - a two-story tower that, when rotated, also creates the mountains, the Abbey, and various rooms in the von Trapp home - is otherwise a wonder to behold.)
In a way, the Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse's presentation could be compared to costume designer Gregory Hiatt's most interesting contributions: the children's play clothes that Maria makes out of curtains. They're wonderfully assembled, perfectly fitted, and finely stitched, even though the ugliness of the curtains' green-and-peach floral pattern is still there. Here, with the von Trapps facing and then escaping Nazi control, The Sound of Music's theme of overcoming evil is still present, but it's so beautifully wrapped in jubilation - tied up with string, if you will - that you focus more on the delight with which it's presented.
The Sound of Music runs at the Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse (1828 Third Avenue, Rock Island) through July 25, and more information and tickets are available by calling (309)786-7733 extension 2 or visiting Circa21.com.