From the Highland von Trapps to The Sound of Music in Chichester

You might say that Janis Kelly’s whole life has been a preparation for appearing in Adam Penford’s production of The Sound of Music at Chichester Festival Theatre.
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Janis will be playing the Mother Abbess in the show which runs on the main-house stage from July 10-September 3. But as a child she was part of a singing family dubbed by the press the Highland von Trapps. In the show, there is a moment where the Mother Abbess says to Maria: “I used to sing that as a child,” and in Janis’s case, it is perfectly true. She really did.

“My mother was a beautiful singer and my father was an incredible musician and a frustrated tenor. He played the piano by ear and everything in five-four time. He lined us up to do musical theatre pieces and we also had a Scottish side to what we did. We were the Kelly Family Singers, It is hard to remember how long I did it for but I know I went to college when I was 16. I was there for a good couple of years and we did a lot of competitions. We won a competition at the Aviemore Centre and we ended up being a cabaret act at a hotel. We did our Scottish side and we would also come back to musical theatre. I was at school at the time learning a Mozart opera. The press referred to us as the Highland von Trapps and we just loved it. We loved singing in close harmony together. In The Sound of Music I would play Maria and double up on the harmonies with all the children. We did Edelweiss. We probably did Favourite Things as well and we certainly did The Hills Are Alive. It was a great time.”

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And now for the first time Janis is in a big professional production of The Sound of Music: “I jumped at the opportunity, and it is lovely to be playing the Mother Abbess. She is very understanding but she does have a stern side which all nuns seem to have. The ones I've come across always seem to be quite stern but she says to Maria ‘I come from the mountains too.’ She says she has the same kind of background as Maria does and it is just lovely to bring out that side to her.”

Janis Kelly as The Mother Abbess (pic by Manuel Harlan)Janis Kelly as The Mother Abbess (pic by Manuel Harlan)
Janis Kelly as The Mother Abbess (pic by Manuel Harlan)

As for the show, what makes it so special, Janis believes, “is that family element of it, that coming together with people perhaps that should not be together. He has lost his wife and she is the nun and it's fascinating to see them. I think it's that element that's so intriguing, the fact that Maria falls in love with this man and it is the Mother Abbess that coaxes it out of her. She says ‘Have you fallen in love with Count von Trapp?’ Love is a big part of religion as well as life. But the really interesting thing is it's a wonderful play as well. When we began we just sat around the table and we did it without the songs. We did it as a play and it worked really, really well. The words are not just added words. They really are the heart of the story, and the lovely thing is the director wants to make us feel that we are just everyday people that happen to be singing. In opera you have that assumption that what is happening is happening through the songs and I think with this production it's moving a little bit more towards that rather than ‘Oh, let's have another number.’”