Every now and then audiences experience a truly magical evening of theater — the kind that inspires spontaneous standing ovations from people who don't "like" plays, the kind that sends you home with songs and daydreams in your head.
Paragon Music Theatre's current production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's The Sound of Music is one of those experiences.
A stunning tour de force of musical and artistic accomplishment, Paragon's The Sound of Music, which continues through Aug. 8, is by far the most professionally wrought and personally enjoyable musical that I have seen in Central Kentucky.
At the heart of the production's appeal is, of course, Maria Rainer, the aspiring nun turned governess turned wife whose music and kind heart changes the lives of seven Austrian children and their father just before the Third Reich annexes Austria in 1938.
Sydney Steele is impeccable in the lead role. Her vocal prowess is a technical feat in its own right, easily soaring to the top of the Opera House rafters. But it is her warmth and interpretive delivery that link the artistic elements of the plot together with graceful aplomb. Anybody with a good voice can sing Maria's songs, but it takes a special kind of performer to "become" Maria in an all-encompassing way as Steele does.
While Steele's performance sets the tone and pacing for the entire show, it does not stand out in the sense that it competes with fellow performers, and that's a good thing.
Tom Hayward, as Capt. Georg von Trapp, Jacob Karnes as his friend Max Detweiler, and Lisa Braswell as the eldest von Trapp daughter, Liesl, all turn in accomplished vocal and acting performances. Then, there are the gorgeous harmonies of all the von Trapp children (the children are double cast, and a new group will perform Aug. 6-8) and the haunting choral music of the nunnery. Cyndi Ackley, playing Mother Abbess, brought down the house in Act I's closing number, Climb Every Mountain.
Technical elements further exceeded expectations. There are a lot more bells and whistles at the Opera House than other local venues and designers have taken full advantage of that to potent effect. Willy Todd Picket's set and lighting design manages to convey the expansiveness of the Alps concurrently with the intimacy of the von Trapps' home and the quiet sacredness of the abbey. And design and stage direction come together in the climactic Salzburg Festival scene to make the imminent threat of the Nazi regime feel all too real in the Opera House.
Anita Shirar's costuming could be a metaphor for the entire show, with rich attention to exquisite detail. Frau Schraeder's ball gown, for instance, glimmers with lush embroidery and Maria's wedding gown would make many a bride covet its elegance.
Sound-wise, the acoustics of the Opera House fully embraced Ryan Shirar's musical direction of the orchestra. It is a welcome relief to never have to strain to hear the music, instead letting the sound wash through you as the plot gently carries you with it.
Artistic Director Robyn Peterman-Zahn deserves considerable praise for orchestrating the artistic elements to work in elegant concert with Shirar's musical direction. In less-than-stellar musicals, moving the plot can take a back seat, functioning as mere connective filler while the ensemble gears up for another clunky and obvious "number." Not so here.
Even if some cast members consider themselves singers first by nature, Peterman-Zahn has made them actors. We can see their characters' feelings, and when they are moved into a musical number, it seems like a natural emotional outgrowth of the action, adding another layer of sophistication to the show's achievements.
Bravo, Paragon, for raising the standard of excellence in Central Kentucky theater. You won me over long before the wildly celebratory curtain call that brought the audience to its feet.