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October 10, 2006 > Sound of Music, a masterpiece

Sound of Music, a masterpiece

by Steve Warga

Years ago, a friend and I were discussing "favorites;" favorite foods, favorite books, and so on. When we got around to favorite musicals, I told her, "If I were forced at gunpoint to choose one - and only one - musical as my all-time favorite, it might well be Sound of Music."

Looking as if she had just swallowed some souring milk, she quickly retorted, "There ought to be a website exclusively for people who love that movie." Now, it's possible my sophisticate friend's offering lacked any malice; or maybe she was free-associating a brilliant new concept. The truth is, she really wanted all of us saps to go away and leave her to explore more avant garde diversions.

Well, she can have them - all of them! Give me Rodgers and Hammerstein any day of the week, every day of the week. And if comes to choosing only one, make mine Sound of Music. I confess: I'm a sap; always have been; always will be. I cannot get through those soaring melodies and their marvelous lyrics without wiping my eyes ... repeatedly!

Douglas Morrison Theatre's latest production was no different for me and my wife, Karen. In this ambitious rendition, the production team headed by director Nancy McCullough Engle, never loses sight of its true treasure: timeless music and lyrics. Thanks to the efforts of cast, directors and crew, Hayward area theater-goers are lifted to the top of those mountains, ever-beckoning in the backdrop.

From the opening notes of the title song, ably rendered by Deborah Ballesteros-Spake as Maria, to the closing Finale Ultimo featuring one last dose of a talented chorus of nuns, this local production offers one musical treat after another after another. Right away, we see that Ballesteros-Spake is not Julie Andrews. And who cares? She is "Maria" and that's the point. She sings well and cleverly portrays the plucky, sometimes impudent, novitiate turned governess turned baroness who has captivated hearts the world over ever since the play first opened in New York City in 1959.

Ballesteros-Spakes triumph is all the more impressive given the challenges of working on a minimalist stage in the presence of some amazingly talented singers. In addition, she handled an occasionally balky microphone without missing a beat. Finally, Ballesteros-Spakes ably and fetchingly held her own even amongst a gang of guaranteed scene-stealers: seven, talented, well-rehearsed, terminally adorable child actors. These stage thieves didn't quite steal the show, but it sure was fun watching them try!

Natalie Hawkins, as Liesl, fairly glowed with the promise of woman emerging from child. We quickly discovered she can sing a fine song too! She'd better watch out, though. Young Celina Reynes as Brigitta, the wise and bookish daughter, displayed impressive vocal skills for one so young, in a brief solo refrain. Given a couple more years seasoning, this young lady will bring down a house or two.

None of this comes as a surprise given her real-life parentage. Celina's mother, Lidia Carlos Reynes, was, simply, extraordinary as Mother Abbess singing that signature tune Climb Ev'ry Mountain. (Okay, I admit this is my personal, never fail, tear-jerker!) Reynes' bio claims "she aspired to become a nun or a lounge singer." She's no longer gracing lounges with her rich, mezzo-soprano voice, but she does direct her church choir and she finally became a nun in this production. If she sings at church too, my Sundays may be booked for awhile.

Accompanied by an appropriately small orchestra ensemble and ably directed by Kevin Ledbetter, every singer in the cast rose to the level of quality Rodgers and Hammerstein's ultimate (and final) collaboration demands. For example, Pamela Ballin as Elsa Schraeder displayed a voice both strong and smooth. Apparently Morrison Theatre is a family thing. Ballin's husband, Matt, plays impresario, Max Detweiler. Husband and wife perform two numbers you won't find anywhere in the hit movie version. Look for them in other community theater houses, they're a fine team.

No review of this entertaining production would be complete without mention of a young player whose only flaw was a lack of singing roles. He can dance, he can act and man, oh man, can he sing! High school junior, Steven Sobzak must not be missed. The moment this young man stepped into his part in Sixteen Going On Seventeen, I glanced at Karen, she glanced at me, we both said, "Wow!" then turned back quickly to catch every delicious note. Keep an eye on Sobzak, his future is bright.

An inconsistent sound system was the only bump in the road of this otherwise seamless production. (It's nearly a three-hour affair; yet we only noticed this after the final notes died.) Maria's mike, in particular, annoyingly cut in and out throughout ACT I. I question the decision to employ those thin, black, voice-activated microphones you see in so many high-end concert productions these days. They offer freedom from microphone stands and hand-held devices, but in this production, their performance was spotty, at best. Beyond this, there's also the distraction of a black wand taped to the right cheek of the singers, even winsome little Madellyn Joly as Gretl. Seems there might be a better way to project those fine voices to the farthest corners. But that's almost nit-picking.

How many millions of kids learned the basics of musical scales by singing Do-Re-Mi? Perhaps there's no more reliable measure of Sound of Music's greatness than this. Maria sings, "When you know the notes to sing, you can sing most anything!" No one composer or collaboration ever did it better than Rodgers and Hammerstein and they were at their best in Sound of Music. I guess there are a lot more saps in this world than my friend ever imagined.

Thanks to the Douglas Morrison Theatre troupe, Tri-City area saps can savor the enchantment all over again in a comfy, intimate setting tucked into a bend of Castro Valley Creek off Crescent Drive in Hayward. You won't be disappointed!

Sound of Music
Douglas Morrison Theatre
22311 North Third Street, Hayward
Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays, 8 p.m.
Sunday matinees, 2 p.m.
Through October 29.

For more information, call (510) 881-6777, or visit

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