Review: The Sound of Music soars on a superb night in Chichester

The Sound of Music, Chichester Festival Theatre, until Sunday, September 3.
Gina Beck as Maria in The Sound of Music (pic by Manuel Harlan)Gina Beck as Maria in The Sound of Music (pic by Manuel Harlan)
Gina Beck as Maria in The Sound of Music (pic by Manuel Harlan)

The Daniel Evans years at Chichester Festival Theatre have given us a succession of hugely-enjoyable big summer musicals. But, in his final season, he has scaled new heights – or indeed mountains – with a simply wonderful production of The Sound of Music, beautifully directed by Adam Penford and so cleverly designed by Robert Jones.

You could easily imagine that The Sound of Music had been done to death, yet this is a production which lets it soar, shedding all sentimentality, rivetingly creating the crucial sense of threat and ultimately doing justice to the most monumental of stories. And just as Evans promised, it’s a production which gets absolutely to the heart of the title, compellingly showing us the power of music and the poverty of its absence.

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Gina Beck, who was our Nellie Forbush in 2021’s South Pacific, is back at the CFT this summer as Maria, and a brilliant Maria she is too – endlessly engaging, fresh and charming, precisely what the Von Trapp household needs to drag it back to life after the death of the Captain’s wife and the mother of his children. Under the Captain’s soulless and mostly absent guidance, the youngsters have been reduced to joyless marching machines. It takes Maria to turn them into children again, reconnecting with all the fun and colour of childhood. She does so by exposing them to the sound of the music their father had banned in his grief.

In the early scenes, Maria, the would-be nun, finds herself in constant trouble, the free spirit tragically trapped in a nunnery completely wrong for her. Her massive good fortune is the Mother Abbess – beautifully and indeed powerfully played by Janis Kelly – who realises that Maria’s calling is elsewhere. The scenes are touching especially when it becomes clear just how much the two have in common.

And so she sends Maria to the von Trapp household where she finds not just her true calling, but also love and family. Edward Harrison is Captain von Trapp, and he too gets Maria’ed, learning to live again through the sheer spark she brings. These too are gorgeous scenes.

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Excellent too from the von Trapp children (tonight the Green team: Friedrich – Dylan Trigger; Louisa – Sasha Watson-Lobo; Kurt – Vishal Soni; Brigitta – Audrey Kattan; Marta – Maya Sewrey; and Gretl – Felicity Walton), each nicely individualised, each with lovely presence and a stage naturalness which hasn’t been schooled out of them. But then history closes in on the emerging family idyll. Germany annexes Austria, and while plenty of Austrians welcome the Germans, Von Trapp simply cannot. There is huge power in the show’s second half. When the Nazi banners are unfurled, it is chilling; when the Nazi officers stand amongst the audience, it is intimidating. And yet the family sings on, singing now for their lives. And when their escape comes, director Penford makes terrific use of the auditorium for the mountain they climb.

Maybe the Mother Abbess coming up through the floor sitting at her desk is faintly, unintentionally comic; and a couple of the lesser-known songs are clearly lesser-known for a reason. But that’s nitpicking on a night which is simply outstanding – one of the finest productions I have seen in more than 30 years of attending the CFT, a production which both honours and reinvigorates the original.