Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Seattle

Holiday Theatre Wrap Up Part One
The Sound of Music at 5th Avenue
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang at Seattle Children's Theatre and
Unwrapped at Seattle Rep

Review by David Edward Hughes

Also see Jerry's review of This Christmas

The Sound of Music


The Cast
Photo by Mark Kitaoka
The 5th Avenue holiday show is always a handsome, family friendly cash cow, so programming their first production of The Sound of Music in about a decade was ano-brainer. The musical score by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II is appropriately evergreen, and much of it has been reinforced in all our minds after endless viewings of the smash hit Oscar winning 1965 film version. The stage script by Howard Lindsay and Russell Crouse is and always was a bit treacly (Ernest Lehman's screenplay was far worthier). David Bennett's direction varies between workmanlike and inspired, but the crowd cheered at the end, so I'd say the goal of the production was achieved, despite my caveats.

Suggested by the true story of the von Trapp family singers, the musical was based on a West German film, which the Lindsay/Crouse version borrowed a lot from, and which is about as true to life as Hammerstein's own, superior, book of The King and I. WARNING: There may be spoilers here (if you have been on Mars for a few decades). The Sound of Music tells the the story of Maria Rainier, a young nun who is sent by the Mother Abbess at Nonnberg Abbey to be a governess to the seven von Trapp children. Captain Georg von Trapp is at first annoyed by her, though his children quickly are captivated by Maria and the joy and music she brings to the family. The arrival of Baroness Elsa Schraeder, who is romancing Georg, leads Maria to a crisis of faith, as she realizes her own feelings for the Captain. She returns to the sanctuary of the abbey, but the Mother Abbess counsels her against running away from life, and Maria goes back to the von Trapp household. Georg announces he and Elsa are to be wed, but their political differences regarding possible annexation of Austria by Germany makes their union impossible. Maria and Georg then find their way to each other, and Max Detweiler, an enterprising family friend and impresario, enters the children into a prestigious vocal completion. The return of Maria and Georg follows the annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany, and necessitates they flee from their home to Switzerland. The music festival offers a diversion for their disappearance, and the nuns at Nonnberg Abbey also support the family's travels out of Austria to a new life.

In many ways, the big success of this production is Anne Allgood as the Mother Abbess, whether partnering Kirsten DeLohr Helland's Maria in a spirited duet version of "My Favorite Things" or, later, with a rousingly soulful rendition of "Climb Every Mountain." Indeed all the nuns, led by such supporting scene stealers as Frances Leah King as Sister Margaretta, Jayne Muirhead as Sister Sophia, and Carol Swarbrick as Sister Berthe, dazzle with their mellifluous delivery of the nuns' numbers, including of course the spirited "How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?" shared with Allgood.

Though the audience seemed to adore her, I had something of a problem with the 5th's Maria. Kirsten DeLohr Helland is a born performer if ever there was one. But her diminutive height, rough and ready energy, and her forceful pop-belt vocals style weigh against the character. She is several inches shorter than ingénue Shaye Hodgins as the eldest von Trapp child Liesl. There is no strong chemistry between her and Hans Altwies' satisfactory if stolid and weak-voiced Captain von Trapp, yet, to her credit, DeLohr Helland caries the show's largest role with aplomb, understanding, determination, comic timing and drive. When she sings "I Have Confidence" (written for Julie Andrews in the film) there is no doubt that she does. And her dramatic work in the scenes with Allgood is exemplary. In short, she triumphs over her miscasting, and then some. The 5th just needs to gift her with a tailor-made starring role in, say, Annie Get Your Gun or The Unsinkable Molly Brown, wherein the full force of her talents can be unleashed.

Almost unrecognizable in a brunette wig, Jessica Skerritt (a born Maria if there ever was one) is cast as Baroness Elsa Schraeder, and was apparently directed to play the role with more than a hint of haughty cattiness. Skerritt does gets laughs but never shows us the human being beneath the veneer of snarkiness. She plays quite well off of David Pichette's deliciously dithery and fey Max, so much so that the cutting of their caustic duet "How Can Love Survive?" is a big and curious misstep. If running time was an issue, a few reprises of more familiar songs could have gone instead. Their trio with Altwies' Capt. von Trapp, "No Way to Stop It," has been abridged as well, and it is shameful for a voice such as Skerritt's to get so little of a workout here. The seven young actors playing the von Trapp children are splendid as a unit, with special kudos to Coleman Hunter's scampish Kurt, Aubrey Thomas' nosy Brigitta, and Tatum Poirrier's not too cutesy Gretel. Shaye Hodgins as eldest daughter Liesl is the whole package, a charming actress/singer/dancer, but unfortunately paired with Kody Bringman's stiff and sulky Rolf on the "Sixteen Going on Seventeen" duet.

The music in The Sound of Music sounds terrific thanks to musical director Kat Sherrell and her orchestra. Trina Mills' choreography is particularly lovely in the party scene and jaunty in the children's "So Long, Farewell." The original scenic design by James Fouchard and original costume design by Cathy Zuber with additional design by Amanda Seymour work well, and Mary Louise Geiger's lighting design is topnotch, while Christopher Walker's sound design is exemplary in a house where such is not always the case on opening nights.

There is just enough positive, especially during musical numbers, for me to rate The Sound of Music GTG (Good Thing Going-3 star).

The Sound of Music runs through January 3, 2016, at The 5th Avenue Theatre (1308 5th Avenue, Seattle). For single tickets (starting at $29) and information, please visit www.5thavenue.org, call the box office at 206-625-1900, or visit the box office at 1308 5th Avenue in Downtown Seattle. Tickets may also be purchased at (888) 5TH-4TIX. Group tickets buyers (10 or more) may call 888-625-1418.


A Rather Earthbound Chitty Chitty Bang Bang at Seattle Children's Theatre


Julie Briskman, Richard Gray
Photo by Alabastro Photography
There are joys to be had and performances to embrace in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang at Seattle Children's in their holiday slot, but the production, despite fantastic flying car model and other lovely scenic trappings by Carey Wong, snappy period costumes by Catherine Hunt, snappy choreography by Marianne Roberts, and open-hearted and imaginative direction by Linda Hartzell, stubbornly refuses to become truly airborne.

I was 11 years old in 1968 when the film version opened. The trailers and music and Dick Van Dyke were enough to make me realize that I would want to see it, but for one reason or another I missed it in all its wide-screen glory, and when I did see it on network TV several years on, somewhat edited and crammed with commercials, it didn't beguile me, or maybe I had reached (as songwriters Richard and Robert Sherman, who wrote both Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Mary Poppins, penned in their last Disney project Bedknobs and Broomsticks) "The Age of Not Believing." More likely, though, I had realized that the film, based on a children's book by, oddly enough, Ian Fleming of Bond/007 fame, was a blatant attempt by United Artists to invade Mary Poppins territory using the same composer, lyricist, and star (and a de-facto Julie Andrews in the person of Sally Ann Howes), but with much less charm and invention. Even the most pleasing of the songs, like "Hushabye Mountain" and "The Old Bamboo," are a notch below the Sherman Brothers' best, but I did warm slightly to the piece when I saw the well-cast and stunningly produced London stage version with Michael Ball making the Van Dyke role his own. This version broke records and ran three and a half years in London, but a subsequent Broadway version came a cropper and lasted all of about eight months, Guinness Book of Records flying car (Most Expensive Prop) and all. The somewhat re-written and abridged stage version by Jeremy Sams and Ray Roderick making the rounds at local arts training schools and high schools is the version SCT is doing, but several of their home-grown musicals have frankly been far worthier efforts.

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is the story of a an eccentric inventor named Caractacus Potts who, with the help of his children Jeremy and Jemima, sets about restoring an old race car from a scrap heap. Soon they discover the car has magical properties, including the ability to float and take flight. However, trouble occurs when the evil Baron and Baroness Bomburst desire the magic car for themselves. The family then takes off along with heroine Truly Scrumptious as they plot to rescue Grandpa Potts and the children of Vulgaria

Dane Stokinger has the embraceable goofball qualities and song and dance man chops to fit just right into the role of Potts, and Emily Cawley is sweet voiced and bubbly blonde as Truly Scrumptious. Richard Gray and Julie Briskman are a dandy PG-rated diabolical duo as the Baron and Baroness, though one wishes their duet "Chu-Chi Face" number had been retained in this staging so they could really show their mettle. As Vulgarian spies Boris and Goran, Basil Harris and Chris Ensweiler cavort as if to the slapstick manner born. Robert Shampain effortlessly switches off from the roles of Grandpa Potts and Lord Scrumptious, the leading pair's papas, and child actors Alex Silva and Corinne Fischer are a peach pairing as Jeremy and Jemima.

Despite my personal bias against Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, I rate this production GTG (Good Thing Going-3 star).

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang runs at Seattle Children's Theatre through December 27, 2015. For tickets or information contact the Seattle Children's Theatre box office at 206-441-3322 or visit them online at www.sct.org.


Unambitious Unwrapped Still Tickles the Funny Bone at Seattle Repertory Theatre


Jinkx Monsoon and Richard Andriessen
Photo by Nate Watters
"RuPaul's Drag Race" season five champ Jinkx Monsoon (Seattle-based actor Jerick Hoffer) and co-star/pianist Major Scales (Richard Andriessen) have been a hit with their ingenious The Vaudevillians shows which imagine a flash-frozen pair of twenties talents unthawed and returning to the stage in the 2010s. The pair's Unwrapped holiday effort has Hoffer as Jinkx begrudgingly performing a Christmas show despite being Jewish, and Andriessen along as long-suffering pianist sidekick. The show is as flimsy as tissue paper wrapping, and a bit lowbrow perhaps for the posh Leo K. Theatre at the Rep, but it is funny, at times, in its looser or improvisational moments, very much so. And in as dire a holiday season as we've had in some years, that's more than enough reason for checking it out.

Jinkx hates Christmas maybe even more than the Grinch, but only poor Major Scales (and some audience participant victims) are her Whoville. Lana Del Rey's "Video Games," Neil Gaiman's "I Google You," and the terrific original song "Red and Green" take the place (welcomingly) over standard holiday fair for the most part. Jinkx does take on "Santa Baby" and a "Twelve Days of Christmas" parody set to names of classic booze brands (Johnny Walker, Old Crow, Cutty Sark, etc) that made me laugh as heartily as when I heard it as a child on an old "Mike Douglas" talk show during my errant youth. Major Scales suffers her foolishness gladly and is the perfect good-spirited foil to Jinkx's Cruella DeVillesque ways.

Jinkx is always fun to watch, even in a rather ramshackle effort such as Unwrapped. But with a talent as big as hers, I want something gaudier, more adventurous, and substantial next year, Santa Monsoon. In the spirit of giving, I give this show GTG (Good Thing Going-3 star rating).

Unwrapped runs through December 13, 2015 at Seattle Repertory Theatre, 155 Mercer St., Seattle; $16-$72 (206-443-2222 or seattlerep.org).

- David Edward Hughes




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