THE SOUND OF MUSIC at the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry

As a perennial programming choice for bank holiday television, the film version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music is so well known that it presents the two key problems to stage performers. The first is comparison. Every Maria von Trapp since Julie Andrews is, by default, compared. Even the advertising poster for this production at Coventry’s Belgrade Theatre boasts a review in The Scotsman that claims leading lady Lucy O’Byrne is “Quite possibly the best Maria since Julie Andrews herself”.  The second challenge is to bring something fresh to the production that does not fundamentally change the play, but marks it as distinct.  This production never quite managed to fully negotiate those difficulties. Yet, despite this it proved to be an excellent evening’s entertainment. The recipe for success in this case was to concentrate on doing simple things well.

The staging was simple. Other than a circular staircase it relied on nothing fancier than painted backdrops, lowered dividers and screens. The lighting was simple, but well thought through and effective. For example, a great sinister effect was created using nothing more than powerful torches when the Nazis were searching the grounds and cloisters of the abbey for the escaped Von Trapps. That is all that was needed. No gimmicks. It is true that there was no major visual spectacle in the production. However, the basics were done well and left the production to rely on the acting, singing and dancing of its quality cast. In this the performers pulled off an excellent show.

Lucy O’Byrne was outstanding as Maria. Her voice and demeanour were ideal for the role, and she was extremely convincing. She was, for me, the main exception in the production to the notion of comparison with the film. Halfway through the first number I had put Julie Andrews out of my head ad started to revel in this new Maria. She remained pitch perfect and natural throughout, with her acting and stage charisma as good as her singing. There were other great vocal performances too, from Katie Shearman as Liesl, and from Megan Llewellyn, who almost stole Maria’s thunder as a supercharged Mother Abbess belting out the high notes with operatic aplomb. Shearman also demonstrated some deft dance moves in her well-choreographed duet, I Am Sixteen, Going On Seventeen, together with Jordan Oliver as Rolf.

Alas, I didn’t feel that Neil McDermott was the right match for Maria as leading man. His portrayal of Captain Von Trapp was, for my taste, unnecessarily melodramatic, ponderous and stilted. His voice, however, was a redeeming feature. He seemed much more comfortable when singing, delivering particularly well with Edelweiss.

This musical is not just about nuns and Nazis. It is, at heart, a family musical about a musical family. The children of that family were as professional as any of the adult actors. They sang out, danced lightly, nailed their tight choreography, and acted with maturity beyond their tender years. They gave a fantastic family feel good factor to the show and were great to watch. I would recommend this production equally to those who are new to the Von Trapp story, as well as to those like me, who have seen on TV once or twice too often.    ★★★★☆    Robert Gainer   7th February 2018