Julie Andrews didn’t originate the role of Maria in “The Sound of Music.” That honor belongs to Mary Martin, best known for her fanciful Peter Pan. But Andrews, who played Maria in the classic 1965 film, remains the gold standard by which all others are measured.
Billie Wildrick, who plays Maria in Ordway Center’s big and elegant new holiday production, clearly has Andrews in her head, even as she makes a claim to owning the role of the would-be-nun turned governess.
Carrying the show with charisma, a light touch and a soaring voice, Wildrick brings sunshine, zest and a winning spirit to Gary Briggle’s slow-but-sure staging of “Music,” which opened Saturday in St. Paul. Wildrick has spark and dimension on her numbers, from the title song to her celebratory “My Favorite Things.” And she is well-paired with Dieter Bierbrauer, the commanding actor and singer who plays Captain von Trapp. His archness and reserve early on helps give his “Edelweiss,” delivered near the end, a powerful emotional punch.
True to its name, “Music” has always been about how great songs can point the way out of difficulties, both on the home front and in the larger world. Von Trapp, who once loved to play and sing, lost his joy when his wife died, leaving him with seven stairstep children. Music, brought back into the family by Maria, helps him to find love and to heal, helps free his children from the martial regimen he imposed and helps the family ultimately escape the Nazis.
Briggle has staged this Rodgers and Hammerstein classic in an almost operatic style. He often plants his actors onstage and lets them rip, which feels languorous at times — especially to viewers who might wish for brisk, efficient transitions and tight action. But it works to showcase the voices.
And what voices they are. Tammy Hensrud, who plays the Mother Abbess, delivers a powerful rendition of “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” that will make you want to run barefoot up your own Everest. Kersten Rodau, as von Trapp’s fiancee Elsa, and James Detmar as her friend Max, join Bierbrauer in a heartfelt rendition of “How Can Love Survive.”
Caroline Innerbichler, who plays Liesl, the oldest von Trapp child, and Matthew Rubbelke, as her boyfriend Rolf, imbue “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” with sweetness and charm. In fact, all the children deliver with oodles of cuteness.
Some of the acting is a bit stilted, however. Peter Moore undersells the Nazi honcho Herr Zeller. He seems a bit limp when he raises his hand in the Nazi salute and says “Heil?” with a question mark, as if he is reluctant to go there. But he should, like J.P. Fitzgibbons, who gives German Admiral von Schreiber an air of stern foreboding.
That serves to sharpen the glorious sounds of a show whose swelling orchestra is conducted by Raymond Berg. The hills really are alive with music.