At least, that's my general feeling before viewing any new production of the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical, when I'm occasionally reminded that The Sound of Music endures for reason; when it's performed with enough charm and skill, the show is not only painless, but surprisingly enjoyable. And every once in a while a stage version comes along that not only treats the material with whatever dignity it deserves, but provides a unique spin you might not have anticipated.
In the Clinton Area Showboat Theatre's production of The Sound of Music, the role of Maria is played by the lovely Katherine Walker Hill, and although she's blessed with a strong soprano, my first thought upon her entrance was: What is Leisl doing here so early? Walker doesn't look - or much sound - a day over 20, and during her first conversation with the Mother Abbess (Anne Schneck), Walker spurts out Maria's dialogue with breathless, frenzied abandon; who knew the nunnery had access to an espresso bar?
I worried that the actress would prove too green for the show, but very quickly, it became clear that this was less a case of miscasting than a complete re-interpretation of the role. Julie Andrews and her numerous stage clones might corner the market on aggressively determined sweetness, but Walker is the first Maria I've seen to fully embody this verse of "How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?": "She'd outpester any pest, drive a hornet from its nest / She could throw a whirling dervish out of whirl / She is gentle, she is wild, she's a riddle, she's a child / She's a headache, she's an angel, she's a girl."
Walker's Maria carries a youthful impetuosity and recklessness that the role usually lacks (and desperately needs), and her connection with the von Trapp children has a different vibe than we're used to. Here, she's less a mother figure than a free-thinking sibling for the kids to play with, and their scenes together have a fun, free-wheeling kick that even makes numbers like "Do-Re-Mi" pass effortlessly. Instead of trying to disguise her youth, the actress revels in it; the spirited, talented Walker completely won me over before the end of her first scene.
Yet the show's coup de grace comes with the arrival of Captain von Trapp, played by the supremely gifted and handsome Chris Amos. As with Walker, Amos's youth serves the show in wonderfully unpredictable ways. Suddenly, Captain von Trapp is less a stern, ill-humored figure than a sad, confused man who lost his wife too soon, and as Maria gradually wins his heart, Amos - the subtlest of comics here, his eyes conveying a quizzical, gradually dawning consciousness - becomes immensely likable. For once, this musical's central romance feels not only inevitable but earned; when Walker and Amos gaze at one another with heartfelt affection, it was the first time I'd ever viewed The Sound of Music wanting to shout, "Kiss her, you idiot!"
Nearly everything about the Showboat's production is surprising, and nearly all of its surprises are terrific ones. Though director Jay Berkow gives the material more musical-comedy razzmatazz than he perhaps should - the kids' choreography, particularly Leisl's (Julia Mitchell) and Rolf's (Craig Merriman) pas de deux, is too busy by half - it's hard to deny that this approach has merit, particularly if you've been bored by this old warhorse in the past; everything moves along at a nice clip, and supporting characters like Elsa (a magisterial Nicole Horton) and Max (the polished, ever-ingratiating Michael Oberfield) are presented with renewed vigor. (The show's solemn wedding scene has been excised, and you barely notice the loss.) Even the von Trapp kids are pretty great. You might still wish they'd stop echoing Maria lyric for lyric, but the Clinton Area Showboat Theatre's The Sound of Music isn't able to make everything about the show feel fresh. It just feels like it.
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