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0 out of 4 stars

The Sound of Music Written by Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein II, Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse Directed by Kelly Robinson Starring Cynthia Dale and C. David Johnson At the Stratford Festival in Stratford, Ont. Rating: ** What's the secret to The Sound of Music ? How is that whiskers on kittens and edelweiss have entered the very lexicon of popular culture? Why will people still queue to see seven little choristers in dirndls and lederhosen team up with a convent full of Nazi-defying nuns? How do you solve a problem like Maria? In fact, there is no great mystery: The answer is schmaltz.

Take a titillating romance (authoritarian military man falls for would-be bride of Christ), add some heart-warming kiddies, throw in some awfully convenient villains, and you have got yourself very bankable stuff. If the 1959 musical can be rescued from this ghetto of Broadway sentimentality, the Stratford Festival has not managed to do it. It was a bland and cloying show that director Kelly Robinson unveiled Thursday at the Festival Theatre.

Yes, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II wrote some good popular songs here, songs like My Favourite Things, Edelweiss and Climb Every Mountain, that successfully set simple sentiments to easy tunes. But they also wrote such sickening numbers as Sixteen Going on Seventeen, inflicted on us the faux yodelling of Lonely Goatherd and dared to rhyme "adieu" with "you." Even when I was 6 and loved The Sound of Music movie, I still cringed whenever one of those little blond Austrian boys tried to get his mouth around ". . . yeu and yeu and yeu."

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What Robinson seems unable to get around is the Festival Theatre's thrust stage. It's not the natural configuration for a Broadway show, but occasionally musical directors required to work here, rather than with the traditional proscenium over at the Avon Theatre have made a virtue of neccessity. Brian Macdonald's Music Man featured some lovely criss-crossing diagonals as he crammed a whole marching band onto the thrust, while Susan Schulman's Fiddler on the Roof imported a central revolve to keep the cast ever swirling. Robinson, on the other hand, neither exploits nor improves the stage, keeping his cast clustered about in the middle, while designer Ruari Murchison awkwardly throws his director the occasional banner of fabric to enliven the nasty fake stonework with which he has covered the whole set. There is, like last year, a central turntable but rather than revolving, it levitates to provide an unnecessary flourish for the scenes in Maria's bedroom.

Meanwhile, choreographer Sergio Trujillo can never rise above the simplistic and predictable choreography -- a bit of goose-stepping here, a bit of elbow flapping there -- that a marching line of children seems to require. The theatre only comes into its own in the final moments of the show, when the steeply raked steps of the centre aisle provide a convenient substitute for the Alps as the von Trapps make their escape.

As Maria, the postulant-turned-governess, Cynthia Dale shows us sweet and good and pretty, but very little of the whimsical disruptiveness that so perplexes the nuns, nor the strength of character that turns the von Trapp castle on its head. As the forbidding Captain/Baron himself, C. David Johnson seems to melt awfully quickly, but once the frog's been kissed, he sure makes a charming prince, all handsome profile and noble sentiments.

Of course, it's hard to fault the actors for simplistic characters since there's very little dramatic material with which to work. The dialogue from the musical's book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse is paper thin. One thing that can be said in favour of The Sound of Music is that it is a musical driven by its songs, and this production, with Berthold Carrière providing the musical direction, is beautifully sung. Johnson may not be an impressive singer -- that magic moment when the baron reveals his long-hidden voice simply doesn't happen here -- but Dale is as pure and true as ever, and the seven youngsters called on to play the von Trapp children also sing very prettily. The only one required to do any acting, an insipid Shannon Taylor in the role of the 16-year-old Liesl, makes it clear they were cast for those voices.

Mary Ann Macdonald, meanwhile, tries an arch little touch of villany as she takes the stage in the role of Elsa Schraeder, the scheming heiress who is angling for the baron herself. It may be an amusing change from shallow sentiments played earnestly, but it sticks out like a sore thumb. No, if there is a way to solve The Sound of Music, irony is not it.

To Nov. 4 in Stratford, Ont.; 1-800-567-1600.

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