Lyric Opera of Chicago's "The Sound of Music" is every bit the grand production you'd expect from one of the country's leading opera companies.
Among its pleasures are the 39 instrumentalists who make up conductor Rob Fisher's glorious orchestra. They bring to Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein's memorable score a sumptuousness not found in smaller productions with orchestras one-third the size. Equally impressive are the vocalists, particularly the exceptional nuns' chorus. Made up of Lyric Opera chorus members and Chicago-area musical theater veterans, their clarion voices send shivers up the spine -- first during the evocative a cappella praeludium that begins Act I and later during the majestic wedding processional, which is this production's most magnificent musical moment.
"The Sound of Music"★ ★ ★
Location: Lyric Opera of Chicago, 20 N. Wacker Drive, Chicago, (312) 827-5600 or lyricopera.org
Showtimes: Various times and dates through May 25
Running time: About two hours, 45 minutes, with intermission
Tickets: Start at $29
Parking: Nearby pay parking garages and metered street parking
Rating: For most audiences, although the length makes it unsuitable for young children
Then there are Michael Yeargan's grand sets: the shadowy interior of the abbey with its soaring stained glass and the sunny grandeur of the von Trapp estate, both set against the ever-present, mist-shrouded Austrian Alps.
Director Marc Bruni's smartly staged production is glossy and confident. But it's traditional rather than transcendent, which is what I expected when the Lyric announced "The Sound of Music" as the second production in its ongoing American Musical Theater Initiative. And while time has not improved the stiff, sentimental book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, Lyric's revival certainly has its charms.
Among them is a fetching leading lady in Jenn Gambatese, who displayed her considerable vocal prowess as Glinda in the 10th anniversary tour of "Wicked," seen here last fall.
Gambatese plays plucky, determined Maria, the postulant-turned-governess who transforms the lives of widowed war hero Captain von Trapp (a deliberately distant Billy Zane) and his seven children. The endearing Gambatese has a lovely voice and a winning presence reflected in the unbridled enthusiasm with which she delivers "My Favorite Things" and "I Have Confidence." Still, I detected in her Maria vestiges of Glinda, whose mannerisms -- raised shoulders here, a crooked smile and singsong intonation there -- felt out of place in 1938 Salzburg.
The von Trapp children are played by a talented, refreshingly unaffected septet made up of Betsy Farrar, Brady Tutton, Julia Schweizer, Michael Harp, Isabelle Roberts, Kylee Hennes and Nicole Scimeca.
Christine Brewer -- whose robust soprano is de rigueur for the Mother Abbess -- is the most vocally formidable member of the cast. She's also one-fourth of the ideally cast nuns quartet, which also includes Cory Goodrich, Susan Moniz and Erin Elizabeth Smith. But Brewer isn't quite the complete package. That distinction belongs to Lyric alumna Elizabeth Futral. A gifted singer with bona fide acting chops, Futral plays Elsa, the wealthy baroness whose plan to marry the Captain has the support of would-be impresario and hanger-on Max Detweiler (Edward Hibbert of NBC's "Frasier"). The character of Max, who bends with the political winds, has always struck me as doomed. I never believed Max would make it through the war. Hibbert's canny take on the role suggests that he might.
Unfortunately, the weak link in Bruni's production is the miscast Zane, who has an urbane appeal but not much of a voice, a fact made painfully obvious by his wary performance of the lovely "Edelweiss."
That said, Zane's acting is solid and his folk dance pas de deux with Gambatese during the party scene stands as one of the most convincing, most effortlessly romantic moments in the show. If this were some other company's production, one might be able to overlook Zane's shortcomings. But this is the Lyric, and voices matter.