Perhaps one of the most familiar of stage musicals, that fame based in part on the hugely successful film adaptation, this Rodgers and Hammerstein justly deserves the term classic. From start to finish it is packed with beautiful and memorable songs and the book, built on a true story, has all the elements required for a truly memorable theatrical experience.

All this said of course means that expectations can be very high indeed, familiarity breeds a sense of ownership and a with that a sense of protectiveness.

Fear not, Chichester Festival Theatre’s 2023 production of this much loved piece is in better than safe hands, this is a beautifully crafted and sublimely performed gem, from the opening bars of that memorable score to the final moments.

Manuel Harlan

At this point it should be mentioned that Rodgers and Hammerstein were, as well as fine creators of musical theatre, never shy of dealing with difficult issues, look and listen to Carousel, South Pacific, Oklahoma… all contain serious content and one has to wonder that without these works would very have had Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret or Sondheim’s Assassins?

Set in 1930’s Austria the charming love story of the young would be nun who meets and falls in love with the seafaring baron takes place in the shadow of the rising Nazi regime and the submission of the country and fall to German rule.

It could be heavy handed, of course it could, but director Adam Penford has driven this forward with the most delicate hand, it’s there yes, but it remains for the most part of the first half as a distant and glowering threat and one that the wealthy inhabitants of the story are troubled by. Should they go along with the Nazis or stand up against them.

In the second half by contrast, that threat and horror becomes real, but once again Penford handles this change with skill.

In addition to all this any production of The Sound Of Music has to deal with a set of iconic performances on both stage and screen, for those old enough to remember Mary Martin and then of course Julie Andrews. CFT have performed an act of genius in finding a cast that surpass all expectations. Starting with those singing kids, The von Trapps. From the tiniest Gretl, at this performance Felicity Watson, through Maya Sewrey, Audrey Kattan, Vishal Soni, Sasha Watson-Lobo and Dylan Trigger, who delivers a stunning prolonged note whilst crossing the expanse of the stage, they are word, step and nuance perfect. They deliver those charming moments of sugary sweetness at just the right moments and then perfectly timed vulnerability when required. There is a reality to their presence and it never tips into the cliche of schmaltz, quite an achievement. Liesl is played with the engaging innocence of a 16 year old but also with emerging sensuality by Lauren Conroy.

Dylan Mason’s Rolf is very fine, a beautiful voice, quality dancing and once again a dramatically engaging performance as he falls under the spell of the Nazi party.

The stage version also benefits from the inclusion of a couple of numbers cut from the movie that give the roles of Uncle Max and Frau Schraeder something to get their teeth into. Ako Mitchell is delightfully flippant and superficial and has a wonderful moment playing with the children. Emma Wilson is beautifully brittle as the rich suitor of Georg Von Trapp and thank heavens for those lost numbers that give her the moment to reveal a fine voice.

There are of course the nuns, lots of nuns who deliver such beautiful harmonies that the brutalist concrete structure is transformed to cathedral, and in their moments of comedy, the brilliant How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria, there is a gentle warmth.

Edward Harrison has one of the toughest roles to bring to life. Georg von Trapp is initially dark and bitter, a role that demands real restraint. That restraint has the gentlest re-awakening, and he pulls this off so well, and how wonderful to have the role performed by an actor who can actually sing, let’s say no more about some previous Barons…

There is little doubt that the great musical moments of this show are heaped upon the Mother Abbess. Janis Kelly is more than up to the role as both actor and singer, there is such delicacy to her performance and then such power from that voice which soars magnificently, show stopping and heart stopping stuff.

Last but far from least comes Gina Beck who brings to the role of Maria Rainer a sugar free performance that breathes both innocence and emerging sexuality. It’s a captivating performance that reveals the tenderness but also the humour in the role and what a voice!

In summing up this is a production that far exceeds expectations, from Robert Jones’s beautiful and clever set and traditional costumes, Lizzi Lee’s delightful choreography and a marvellous band led by Matt Samer and supervised by Gareth Valentine it works on every level.

I have only one regret, and this may seem strange, but I wish that this production had been the one I had seen first. I sat next to a young person who had no previous knowledge of this show, never heard the songs or seen the film… how I envied her seeing this done so so well.

Andrew Kay

17 July

Chichester Festival Theatre

Rating: ★★★★★

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