STRATFORD, ON—Christopher Plummer famously claimed that working with Julie Andrews on The Sound of Music was like “being hit over the head with a big Valentine’s Day card, every day.” Perhaps, though, the experience of performing in the musical and seeing the musical are not the same. Disneyland, after all, is a very different place for a child than it is for a member of the staff. Granted, its approach to history is lackadaisical at best, its sense of ethics uncompromisingly uncomplicated: the Nazis lingering in the wings are so throughly inhuman they work more as symbols of evil than they do as characters. And Rogers and Hammerstein do test one’s limits for the saccharine: their songs find the time for roses, kittens, snowflakes, and—let us not forget—drops of golden sun.
Nevertheless, allow your inner Pollyanna to breathe freely and you might find yourself tickled by The Sound of Music, which is being treated to a lavish, impeccable revival at the Stratford Festival this summer. The key here is sincerity, since an ounce of cynicism could upset the entire production, and Stephanie Rothenberg’s Maria is nothing if not sincere; her body is positively buzzing with amiable goodwill, her neutral countenance a beam, fully earning Sister Margaretta’s (Glynis Ranney) pithy verse, “I’d like to say a word in her behalf, / Maria makes me—laugh.” Ben Carlson, in the more thankless role of Captain von Trapp, plays the widower as appropriately stilted and manages to work the transformation from martial patriarch to family man rather fluidly, especially considering the short time he is given to do so. And Zoë Brown, as the youngest, Gretl, never fails to endear herself to her audience.
A musical so unapologetically optimistic might strike modern viewers as woefully naïve, but so long as one treats it less as a reflection of history or reality and more as an expression of faith in humanity, it certainly earns its place in the popular repertoire.