Obviously nothing a critic says is going to dent the popularity of “The Sound of Music,’’ so one embarks on a review of the current production at the Wang Theatre with a sense of utter futility. But duty calls, so . . .
First, though, a brief bit of relevant history. As former New York Times reporter Todd S. Purdum reminds us in “Something Wonderful,’’ his engaging new book about Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, “The Sound of Music’’ was critic-proof from the start.
But the songwriting duo didn’t know that when the stage production premiered on Broadway late in 1959 after a tryout in Boston. During that tryout in the Hub, “Edelweiss’’ was first introduced to the show after Rodgers and Hammerstein composed the final version of the song in a room at the Ritz-Carlton that contained a piano.
“The Sound of Music’’ starred Mary Martin — then just weeks away from her 46th birthday — as Maria, the young postulant who leaves an abbey to become a governess to the von Trapp family. Maria falls in love with and marries Captain Georg von Trapp, a widower, and the family eventually flees Austria as the Nazi menace rises.
Reviewers mostly delivered withering verdicts on the musical. In Boston, the legendary theater critic Elliot Norton lamented the “silliness, stiffness, and corny operetta falseness of the script.’’ After it opened in New York, Kenneth Tynan bitingly described “The Sound of Music’’ as “a show for children of all ages, from six to about eleven and a half.’’ For years after the movie version came out in 1965, starring Julie Andrews as Maria and Christopher Plummer as Captain von Trapp, Plummer called it “The Sound of Mucus’’ in interviews.
None of these brickbats slowed the cultural juggernaut that is “The Sound of Music.’’ In both its stage and screen incarnations, it’s been enduringly popular, one of the all-time blockbusters. A touring production of the musical was at the Boston Opera House just two years ago. Even NBC’s misguided “The Sound of Music Live!’’ in 2013, starring a disastrously miscast Carrie Underwood as Maria, drew nearly 20 million viewers.
But the sheer omnipresence of “The Sound of Music’’ makes it hard for any individual staging to feel fresh. And indeed, a certain musty staleness clings to the current production at the Wang, directed by Matt Lenz (the original direction was by Jack O’Brien), even though Jill-Christine Wiley is quite appealing as Maria and Boston Conservatory graduate Lauren Kidwell is terrific as the Mother Abbess.
When Maria and the Mother Abbess team up for “My Favorite Things,’’ Kidwell is very touching in her evocation of a woman of heavy responsibilities luxuriating in the chance to relive joyful childhood memories. She also delivers a powerhouse rendition of “Climb Ev’ry Mountain’’ that brings Act 1 to a rousing end.
Wiley, for her part, thoroughly captures Maria’s awkward, impulsive girlishness at the start of the show. Seldom has the Mother Abbess’s “She’s a girl’’ admonition to the nuns, putting a button on their fretful questions about how to solve a problem like Maria, seemed more true. Then Wiley goes on to show us Maria’s steady maturation as she lovingly takes charge of von Trapp’s seven motherless children and makes clear to the captain that they are to be treated as children rather than “unhappy little marching machines.’’
But Mike McLean’s portrayal of Captain von Trapp lacks a clearly defined personality, diluting the chemistry between the captain and Maria that is necessary to make us believe the wealthy widower would break things off with Baroness Elsa Schraeder (Melissa McKamie) and cross the class divide to marry the family governess. Von Trapp’s instantaneous transformation from humorless martinet to loving papa when he hears his children sing is as implausible as ever, undercutting the scene’s presumable intention, to make us consider the power of music. Keslie Ward is fine as oldest child Liesl, but Jake Miles doesn’t give much edge to Max Detweiler’s rascality and Chad P. Campbell doesn’t register very vividly as Rolf, the telegram messenger-turned-Nazi.
The central problem, though, is “The Sound of Music’’ itself. Yes, Rodgers’s melodies shimmer, and yes, some of Hammerstein’s lyrics glow with a gentle wisdom. But Act 2 consists largely of reprises of tunes that we already heard in Act 1, such as “My Favorite Things,’’ “Sixteen Going on Seventeen,’’ “Do-Re-Mi,’’ and “So Long, Farewell.’’ (As Purdum notes in “Something Wonderful,’’ this kind of front-loading was “the prevailing Rodgers and Hammerstein pattern.’’) More broadly, a white-bread blandness prevails in “The Sound of Music.’’ That stiffness and corniness that Elliot Norton criticized six decades ago is still a defining feature of the show. There remain too many moments that are cloying and saccharine enough to induce toothache.
I could go on, but what’s the point? If you’re a “Sound of Music’’ fan, not a word of this has dissuaded you from seeing the show. Critics ought to know when they’re beat.
THE SOUND OF MUSIC
Music by Richard Rodgers. Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II. Book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse. Directed by Matt Lenz. Presented by the Boch Center at the Wang Theatre, Boston, through May 13. Tickets $35-$125, 800-982-2787, www.bochcenter.orgDon Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter@GlobeAucoin