Pick Me Up Theatre in The Sound Of Music, Theatre@41, Monkgate, York, until December 30. Performances: 7.30pm, December 19, 21, 23, 27, 28 and 29; 2.30pm, December 20, 22, 27, 29 and 30. Box office: tickets.41monkgate.co.uk
THIS is Theatre@41’s Christmas show, as signified by the seven fairy-lit fir trees on director-designer Robert Readman’s end-on stage.
Those trees evoke both the hills, alive with the sound of music, and the home, one for each von Trapp child.
However, although it may Christmastide, just as with 1938’s rising tide of Nazism in Austria, the hills and the cities in 2022 are all too alive with intolerance, extremism and anything but music.
Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical was last staged in York by Nik Briggs’s York Stage Musicals in April 2019 at the Grand Opera House on a grander scale. Readman has gone for a more intimate performance, the audience around the perimeter settling into deeply comfy chairs more normally to be found in smart houses, but being confronted by unsettling Nazi insignia, from uniforms to Swastika flags and armbands and a hale of heils.
This heightens the beauty of the mountain setting, the purity and devotion of the nuns, the love among the children, the goodness of Maria and the resolute political convictions of Austrian naval captain Georg von Trapp, when countered by the strangling grip of Nazism.
It also enhances the pleasure of watching the performers, when so close up, all the better for facial expressions in a musical where song and dance numbers are never more than gather-round family sized in Jessica Sias Wilson’s choreography.
Led by Helen Spencer’s Mother Abbess, the choral singing of the Nonnberg Abbey nuns has a haunting stillness, and even the beloved How Do We Solve A Problem Like Maria? is more driven by the singing than movement. Sister Act, it aint!
Spencer’s Climb Ev’ry Mountain, once taken to the chart peak by Shirley Bassey, is sung with heart and matriarchal concern, in keeping with the character, rather than as a showstopper, but is all the more moving for that interpretation.
The two leads could not have been better cast. Since making her York debut in The 39 Steps in November 2021, Swedish-born Sanna Jeppsson has rapidly ascended the York theatrical circuit, showing diversity, equally adept in comedy and drama, and now revealing her talent for musicals too.
A radiant stage presence, she shines as Maria Rainer, the unsure trainee nun who finds her true calling with the von Trapp children, as the young nanny with nonconformist ideas, bursting with love and kindness, independent, strong-willed thinking, a zeal for nurturing, and a delight in bringing joy, yet we are always aware too that she is learning, as much as they are learning from her.
Her Maria is full of good humour too, her singing uplifting in The Sound Of Music, light, bright and playful in the set-pieces with the von Trapp children, My Favourite Things and Do-Re-Mi.
James Willstrop has been making the headlines this year…for his sporting prowess, swishing all before him on the squash doubles court as world champion and Commonwealth games gold medallist, but he has another string to his bow as an actor on the stages of Harrogate and West Yorkshire.
Now he makes his York debut as widowed Captain von Trapp. Tall, commanding, carrying off a suit with an air about him, he begins with righteous austere authority, issuing orders to staff and children alike on his whistle, but warming under Maria’s influence, while never wavering from his bold stance against Nazism.
He has a lovely tenor too, best expressed in Edelweiss, and is handy with strings too, this time the guitar, not the squash racket. Word has it, he is keen to do more with Pick Me Up next year.
Elsa Schraeder might be seen as the female short-straw role, but Alexandra Mather brings more than Viennese airs and graces to the sometime sourpuss, the children’s putative “new mother”. There is ice but shards of haughty humour too, and her operatic voice has crystalline clarity.
Andrew Isherwood’s “political cockroach” Max Detweiler is dextrous rather than sinister, dapper, flamboyant, peppering his performance with a comic edge more usually to be found in the Emcee in Cabaret.
Daisy Winbolt-Robertson impresses as wilful Liesl von Trapp (a role shared with Emily Halstead), as does Sam Steel as Rolf Gruber, the naïve delivery boy who takes up the Nazi cause (in a role share with Jack Hambleton).
Readman has assembled three sets of von Trapp children (Teams Linz, Graz and Vienna). Saturday night was Team Linz’s turn, and how they excelled, working so delightfully with Jeppsson’s Maria, yet blossoming individually too, especially Poppy Kay’s Brigitta.
Natalie Walker’s five-piece band may be out of sight, behind a screen, but they play their part to the full, those so-familiar songs flying high on flute, trumpet, clarinet, keys and percussion.
Readman and Carolyne Jensen’s costumes are top drawer, from Von Trapp and Detweiler’s suits to Schraeder’s dresses. Look out too for the children’s clothes made out of curtains.
Readman surrounds the audience with tied-back drapes and floral decorations, a typically theatrical flourish to his design, to go with those glittering trees and steps. The lighting signifies each change of tone too.
Plenty of matinees as well as evening performances affords ample opportunity to visit Theatre@41 over the festive season for the best of Readman’s three productions in quick succession (after Matilda The Musical Jr and Nativity! The Musical).