nytheatre.com review by Heather J. Violanti
December 6, 2008
Let's start at the very beginning. A very good place to start.
Fraulein Maria lovingly deconstructs The Sound of Music through dance. It transcends parody to become a giddy, wondrous celebration. With its hip-hop moves, tinsel trees, and cross-gender casting, Fraulein Maria is a fun, fresh spin on the family holiday show. (The matinee I attended was well populated by children—and smiling grown-ups). This is Fraulein Maria's third December appearance at Joe's Pub. It looks well on its way to becoming a new holiday tradition.
And no wonder. The company radiates pure joy. They dance, to cite Hammerstein, as if they had the moon on their wings. After seeing them leap, stomp, and whirl among the alpine hilltops (cannily represented, at one point, by dancers clad in green sheets), you just might never look at The Sound of Music the same way again.
Doug Elkins, the principal choreographer, began his career as a "B boy," touring the world with breakdance groups. This unconventional background gives Fraulein Maria its urban edge. Elkins and the company, who choreographed the show collaboratively, pay homage to The Sound of Music movie while infusing the movement with a streetwise flair. Some memorable movie moments have been recreated, such as the Von Trapp children—now played by adult dancers—hopping gleefully in time to the descending musical scale. Many more scenes have been completely re-imagined. The somber nuns who wonder "How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria?," for example, now wear tight black hoodies and track shorts as they snake sinuously yet angelically across the stage.
The show is performed to the cast recording of The Sound of Music film, but the songs have been reordered and reinterpreted. Co-directors Barbara Karger and Michael Preston seamlessly realize Elkins's choreography, allowing scenes to seamlessly melt into each other. They creatively use the cramped Joe's Pub space—at one moment, Maria climbs over tables, pillars, and audience members to get on stage.
Fraulein Maria begins with two dancers, dressed in top hats and tails, coaxing the crowd into a group sing-along of "Do Re Mi." Then, in a miraculous feat of theatrical kitsch, the empty stage transforms into a mountain hilltop. Dancers scurry onto the platform, where they are covered with green and white sheets to represent the snow-covered Alps. Tinsel trees are thrust into their hands, to create the illusion of forest. Suddenly, up pops a Maria puppet, twirling with gusto as Julie Andrews's voice sings "The hills are alive with the sound of music." And these hills are indeed alive, swaying in time to the song. It's a moment resplendent with both silliness and joyful grandeur.
The casting is non-traditional, both in number in gender. Two, three, or more dancers play the same role, often at the same time. Multiple Marias march various Von Trapp children through "Do Re Mi," while three Marias pair with three Captain Von Trapps for the romantic duet "Something Good."
For certain larger roles, such as Maria, the cast varies at each performance. At the matinee I attended, Maria was played by a man (the winsomely graceful Arthur Aviles) and two women (the nimbly comic Cindy Chung Camins and the gangly, elegant Donnell Oakley). Liesl, the eldest Von Trapp daughter, was played with delicate insouciance by brawny David Parker, who, with his white silk dress and rouged cheeks, looked ready for a musical comedy version of The Maids. Together with fiery Niles Ford as Rolf, the charming Parker nearly stopped the show during the coyly seductive "Sixteen Going On Seventeen."
Lanky Deborah Lohse danced the role of Mother Abbess during "How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria," summing up the nun's imperiousness the instant she put on her glasses. Later, Doug Elkins took over the Abbess role for "Climb Ev'ry Mountain," showcasing his hip-hop (and basketball) skills during a riveting solo. Lohse, meanwhile, flaunted her versatility in her second role as the slinky Baroness, Maria's rival.
Ultimately, Fraulein Maria isn't so much a deconstruction of The Sound of Music as a reconstruction. Elkins and his company have re-imagined a familiar show, making what was once familiar new and exciting. They take material that could seem cloying in the wrong hands—and make it soar. For that, Fraulein Maria is nothing short of a miracle.