One has to admire the nerve of plucky young Kerstin Anderson. She’s just 21 and only a junior at Pace University in New York, where she is pursuing a musical theater degree. Her professors ought to give her class credits right now: She earns them for even attempting a role as iconic as Maria Rainer from the warhorse 1959 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical The Sound of Music.
That she pulls off the challenging role with charm and a crystalline voice that would have pleased the demanding Rodgers-Hammerstein duo is even more impressive. Especially so, given that she’s a quarter century younger than Mary Martin was when she originated the role on Broadway, nine years younger than Julie Andrews was when she earned an Oscar nomination for her performance in the beloved 1965 film and also nine years younger than Carrie Underwood was when she recently took on the role in a live TV production.
Put Anderson in the middle of the pack. Topping the historical performances of Martin and Andrews is hard, but the newcomer is a considerably better Maria than the 2005 American Idol champ. For one, Anderson is a more natural actress, whether she’s bantering with a cast of seven children, seeking guidance from a kindly and wise Mother Abbess at the Nonnberg Abbey (a terrific Ashley Brown, who breaks one of the top commandments by stealing every scene she’s in) and, to a lesser extent, going up against a patriarch who will soon set her heart spinning at 78-rpm.
We say lesser extent because the age difference seems a hurdle that even this talented actress and Tony-winning director Jack O’Brien can’t quite surmount. Anderson’s Maria seems barely older than the eldest von Trapp spawn, Liesl, who is played fetchingly by Paige Silvester (Sixteen Going on Seventeen).
Anderson isn’t helped by her co-lead Ben Davis, who plays Capt. Georg von Trapp as one-note, with little charisma and a lack of heft. A milquetoast von Trapp will not do. The two lack chemistry, and the clear age difference makes the story’s inevitable outcome feel a bit unsettling — pat at best, creepy at worst.
This Sound of Music, playing through Sunday at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Miami, is long, about three hours counting intermission, but things happen fast here. Too fast. Characters let go of long-held convictions with nary a beat, and the central romance is missing a key piece to be believable. Purist fans of the original Broadway production and the movie will be put off by the changes given that plot-driving numbers like Maria’s I Have Confidence and the Captain’s early solo number, Edelweiss, are excised and much of the drama is thus rendered inert.
All that said, newbies — like some of the younger audience members or fans of enduring show tunes like My Favorite Things, Do-Re-Mi and Climb Ev’ry Mountain — will find much to love here. The story of a governess who finds love in a widower’s house during the rise of the Nazis in Austria is otherwise intact. The voices, one and all, are sublime, as are Trude Rittmann’s complex vocal arrangements and Robert Fussell Bennett’s first-rate orchestrations.
Brown’s fluid, powerful soprano on Climb Ev’ry Mountain that closes act one is standing-O bait, and the harmonies by the seven von Trapp children are graceful and clear.
Also winning and tipping the balance to go-ahead-and-buy-a-ticket: Douglas W. Schmidt’s understated yet rich scenic design and Natasha Katz’s spot-on lighting, which combine to capture the grandeur of the von Trapp home, the Abbey’s shadows and the chilling onset of World War II (Reprise: So Long, Farewell).
Howard Cohen: 305-376-3619, @HowardCohen