Full disclosure: While I harbor no particular animosity toward raindrops on roses, whiskers on kittens, or singing nuns, “The Sound of Music’’ has never been one of my favorite things.
My allergy to the candy-coated inanities that are far too prevalent in the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical was not cured by the national touring production that has arrived at the Boston Opera House, directed by Jack O’Brien.
But even the river of syrup coursing through “The Sound of Music’’ can’t obscure the glow given off by the young newcomer who plays the free-spirited Maria von Trapp at the Opera House: Kerstin Anderson. Remember that name.
The casting of Maria is obviously crucial to any “Sound of Music.’’ A role originated by the legendary Mary Martin in the 1959 Broadway production, Maria was played by the equally legendary Julie Andrews in the 1965 movie. (Right now, you’re either smiling fondly or wincing in pain at the memory of that film.) And then — travesty of travesties — the hapless Carrie Underwood starred as Maria in NBC’s 2013 live broadcast of “The Sound of Music.’’ I guess two out of three ain’t bad.
Now comes Anderson, a 21-year-old native of Burlington, Vt., who just might help to banish memories of the Underwood debacle. Anderson is not content to just dutifully prop up a franchise; she actually creates a character whose emotional journey we care about.
Buoyant without being saccharine, Anderson projects an appealing gamine quality, and even distinctive traces of screwball comediennes like Carole Lombard. Her bell-clear voice and loose-limbed approach help to liberate the notoriously stiff-jointed “Sound of Music.’’ Anderson’s Maria matures before our eyes from a genuinely gawky and flighty girl — a “flibbertigibbet,’’ as one of the other nuns sings while they’re pondering how to solve a problem like Maria — to a poised, calmly confident woman who is equal to the challenges that confront her.
Those challenges are not small. Once the Mother Abbess (Melody Betts) concludes that Maria is temperamentally unsuited for life as a nun — the young postulant would rather sing than pray — she leaves the abbey and goes to work as a governess to the seven motherless von Trapp children. Maria first melts, then wins, the initially frosty heart of their widower father, Captain Georg von Trapp (Ben Davis), and eventually the two are wed.
But it’s Austria in 1938, and the steadily-growing menace of Nazism is slated to arrive, quite literally, at their doorstep. The von Trapps have to figure out a way to escape the country.
The two storylines — schmaltzy romance and light-hearted tunes on the one hand, life-or-death drama on the other — have always fit together awkwardly in “The Sound of Music,’’ and that is no less the case in this production. Davis has his moments as Captain von Trapp, but one misses the depth of portraiture and flickering layers of ambivalence that Christopher Plummer brought to the role in the film version (possibly reflecting Plummer’s own ambivalence about the movie, which he famously derided as “The Sound of Mucus’’).
Nor is there much nuance in the supporting performances. Betts is strong-voiced (especially when she launches into “Climb Ev’ry Mountain’’) but stilted as the Mother Abbess in her exchanges with Maria. As Elsa Schraeder, who is headed for marriage with Captain von Trapp before Maria floats onto the scene, Teri Hansen delivers the standard portrait of the sniffy aristocrat, with few of the hints of vulnerability that Laura Benanti brought to the NBC production. Paige Silvester is OK but not revelatory as Liesl, the oldest of the von Trapp children. Merwin Foard has some fun as the calculating music producer Max Detweiler, though Max is not as witty as the show seems to think he is.
It would be absurd to deny the sentimental charms of “The Sound of Music.’’ The show’s abiding faith in the power of song is borne out by the beauty of some numbers, especially the title tune, “Edelweiss,’’ and, yes, “My Favorite Things.’’ I don’t take lightly the fact that family-friendly fare can be hard to find sometimes. Who knows, Boston theatergoers who were horrified by “The Book of Mormon’’ might see this production of “The Sound of Music’’ as recompense.
To me, though, the chief reward is the way Anderson, presented with a too-familiar role, has proceeded to make of it something fresh and original. That’s one of the ways stars are born.
THE SOUND OF MUSIC
Music by Richard Rodgers. Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II. Book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse. Directed by Jack O’Brien. Presented by Broadway In Boston. At Boston Opera House, through April 10. Tickets: 800-982-2787, www.BroadwayInBoston.com
Don Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.