Paramount Theatre in Aurora does things big. It’s a big venue with a big stage. They put on big-budget musicals and spare no expense. They import stars with big resumes touting numerous Broadway credits. In the equation of “go big or go home,” the Paramount made the decision to simply make its home big.
For the holiday season production of “The Sound of Music,” extended through Jan. 15, Paramount has fully embraced going big yet again. And it is impressive.
The sets that fill Paramount’s immense stage are routinely excellent. The set for “The Sound of Music” by scenic designer Jeffrey D. Kmiec is absolutely amazing. It easily puts most Broadway sets to shame. That says a lot.
Combined with the stunning voices of the nuns of Nonnberg Abbey, Kmiec’s set immediately transports the audience into the world of 1938 Austria, just prior to the country being forcibly annexed by Adolf Hitler’s German Reich. The operatic voices of the nuns and the sweeping opening set that reaches to the sky place you front and center in the action.
Indeed director/choreographer Amber Mak has assembled all the pieces for a vibrant success. She has skillfully laid them out to give the audience a breathtaking theatrical experience. In her directorial notes, Mak asks the audience to view the production as if seeing “The Sound of Music” for the first time.
The timeless classic is based on the real-life experiences of Maria von Trapp as reflected in her 1949 memoir “The Story of the Trapp Family Singers.” In it, Maria is a postulant at the Nonnberg Abbey who is sent to serve as a governess to the seven children of retired Navy submarine commander Capt. Georg von Trapp.
Maria, a free spirit raised in the Alps before joining the abbey, is like nothing the Trapp family has experienced before. In short order, Maria wins over the children, then, surprisingly, she captures the heart of the captain. All this is set to the music of Richard Rodgers and the lyrics of Oscar Hammerstein II, with book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse.
One of the most important factors for a successful mounting of “The Sound of Music” is ensuring you have a strong Maria. Alicia Kaori is a very capable actress with an absolutely beautiful voice that fills the auditorium. Rather than just focus on the free-spirited nature and youthful exuberance of the character, Kaori gives her Maria a dose of fear. She is scared of leaving the abbey. She is scared of being a governess. She is scared of falling in love. It’s a darker approach than some, but ultimately works.
The role of Captain von Trapp is often given to actors without extensive musical chops. I don’t know exactly why that is. Perhaps it’s because Maria and the children live in a world where the joys of music dance in the air, and that world is supposed to be foreign to Georg ever since the death of the children’s mother.
For the Paramount production, Mak and casting director Trent Stork give us an actual song-and-dance man: Christopher Kale Jones. Jones is a delight. Not only can he sing, play the guitar and move his nimble feet beautifully, Jones gives us the most complete and well-developed characterization of the role I have seen so far. He gives Maria a reason to fall in love with him and for the audience to adore him, something not every actor in the role accomplishes.
Finding seven children who can capture the beauty of the score and the hearts of the audience may seem daunting to some, but Paramount has assembled two groups of children, as well as a host of understudies to handle the workload.
The children include: Gage Richey and Brody Tyner as Friedrich, Maddie Morgan and Kara Rivera as Louisa, Charlie Long and Ezekiel Ruiz as Kurt, Genevieve Jane and Milla Liss as Brigitta, Avelyn Choi and Savannah Lumar as Marta, and Ava Barabasz and Lena Soszynski as Gretl. Understudies for the youth roles include Kirin Pauline, Juliana Filapek, Elias Totleben and Layla Joan.
Straddling the world between child and adult is eldest daughter Liesl – a 16-year-old beauty just starting to explore feelings of the heart with local telegram delivery boy Rolf Gruber. Julia Aragon is wonderful as Liesl. Although a real-life teenager, Aragon holds her own among the adult leads. She has a gorgeous smile, a glowing charisma and a stunning and mature singing voice.
Michael Harp deserves mention for his role as Rolf. In a few short scenes speckled throughout the show, Harp demonstrates a complete character arc in his excellent interpretation.
Broadway powerhouse Susan Moniz is in fine form as Mother Abbess – Maria’s confidante, protector and guiding light. Moniz’s voice is amazing. Interestingly, I almost co-starred with Moniz in Jeff Calhoun’s Broadway revival of “Grease” in the 1990s, but ended up deciding to do “Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding” instead. It’s a small world. It’s great to see her tearing down the house at the Paramount.
Also instrumental to the story are the characters of Elsa Schraeder and Max Detweiler. Emilie Lynn gives a strong performance as Baroness Schraeder, who is engaged to wed the captain, and Stephen Schellhardt is good as would-be star-maker Detweiler.
As a director and choreographer, Mak certainly proves she knows how to structure a show to be fun, moving and entertaining. And kudos to her for the brilliant directorial decision to insert vignettes to cover the scene changes. They are creative, add to the story, and make the show flow seamlessly.
Mak also uses the grandness of the Paramount Theatre’s stage to depict the overpoweringly scary Nazi takeover. Her placement of swastika flags and Nazi officers at the Kaltzberg Music Festival that the Trapp family performs in near the end of the play literally made me gasp out loud. Mak notes: “ … the story feels as contemporary and poignant as ever in our current world.”
Featuring the time-tested hits “Do-Re-Mi,” “My Favorite Things,” “So Long, Farewell,” “Edelweiss,” “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” and the title song, this Paramount production of “The Sound of Music” is something the whole family can enjoy.
• Rikki Lee Travolta has appeared throughout the country as a theatrical headliner, as well as in film and television. Visit www.RikkiLeeTravolta.com.
IF YOU GO
WHAT: “The Sound of Music”
WHERE: Paramount Theatre, 23 E. Galena Blvd., downtown Aurora
WHEN: Wednesday through Sunday through Jan. 15; except Christmas Day
INFORMATION: 630-896-6666, www.ParamountAurora.com