If tonight goes as planned, more than 700 people will gather in Maple Grove to watch a 36-person cast and an 11-piece orchestra present "The Sound of Music" -- in a family's back yard.

What began 10 years ago as a last-minute staging of "The Wizard of Oz" has grown into a polished annual production put on by the Irvin-Grove family and many of their neighbors and friends.

"You hear about a back-yard play," said Minneapolis resident Chris Lobash, "and then you come here and realize how elaborate this production is."

As the play has matured, so has its director, Nate Irvin -- once a 7-year-old kid in a scarecrow's costume and now, at age 16, an accomplished director and professional actor.

The neighborhood put on the first play at Irvin's urging, so "he's always been listed the director," his mother, Janet Grove, said, "but when he was 7 ..."

As he grew older, though, he took hold of more and more scenes. This year, she said, "He has directed every ounce of it."

Before Wednesday's show -- opening night of a three-show run -- he circled the house with a clipboard, delivering notes to each of the nuns and Von Trapp children.

"Kevin, when you yodel to Gretl, make sure you do this," he said, bringing his elbow back and cupping his mouth like a megaphone.

In the hours before the show and during intermission, he was quick to demonstrate a dance or sing a line in his beautiful tenor, with a tone as clear as Alpine air.

A rising junior at Minnetonka High School, Nate has graced much more impressive stages than his back-yard deck.

For years, he sang with the Minnesota Boychoir and then the Houston Grand Opera. He has performed in shows at the Guthrie Theater, the Chanhassen Dinner Theatres and the Children's Theatre Company.

Nate said his "most comfortable place" is onstage singing.

But he seems equally comfortable in front of a video camera. Which is good, because there have been an awful lot of them humming around his house lately.

Popularity -- and audience size -- has grown each year

The neighborhood's back-yard musical -- produced by "NDI Backyard Productions Inc.," according to the playbill -- has become a well-known entity in the Twin Cities and beyond, thanks both to word-of-mouth among attendees and publicity the show has generated in recent years.

Each year, the audience has grown by a few hundred people, and the organizers have added a day to the run to accommodate the interest. This year, they expected an audience of 700 to 1,000 each night.

On Wednesday, people began dropping off their lawn chairs to claim their spot as early as 8 a.m., said Katie Irvin, Nate's eldest sister and the show's "Maria."

Then, just after 5 p.m., people began sitting in them, edging into the neighbors' yards, eating popcorn and waiting for the 6:30 show.

They were a happy crowd, quick to clap and laugh -- though they booed loudly when Nate, in his introduction, announced this year's show would be the last.

Recently, Nate has turned down parts in several productions to do the back-yard show, said his father, Jerry Irvin, who plays the money-grubbing Max Detweiler. Nate's mom plays "The Mother Abbess," and Irvins play several other roles in the cast.

"This is the end," Jerry Irvin said. "So Nate can do his professional productions -- and so we can not be crazy, for once."

The family chose "The Sound of Music" as their swan song for one main reason:

"It's got seven kids in a music-making family," Nate Irvin said. "It's all about what we're about."

Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168