Review: The Sound of Music. Mellow Dramatics. Burton Brewhouse Arts Centre

The Brewhouse has an impeccable record for presenting quality amateur productions that never fail to impress. So, I genuinely wonder if the Mellow Dramatics ever do rest on their laurels and say, ‘may as well knock this out the park too, guys – keeps the doors open, doesn’t it.’

I don’t mean to sound flippant on the matter, but The Mellows have been doing this for so long now, I can’t help but feel that, by now, it should be no surprise when they produce yet another fabulous show; flocked to by a wide-eyed, eager audience. Feels a bit of an injustice to call them amateur, to be honest. I mean, you can’t be an amateur at staging something magnificent like The Sound of Music, can you?

Premiered on Broadway in 1959, this is the last collaboration between Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein 11. Based on the 1949 memoir ‘The Story of the Trapp Family Singers’ by Maria von Trapp, the story is set in Austria just before World War 2.

Effervescent, selfless, talented (and a wee bit bloody beautiful) Maria is a nun in the making, but she’s going down a bit like marmite as she trains in the Nonnberg Abbey. The nuns are divided: some embrace her free spirit and relentless singing; some are simply pissed off with it. So, to ensure Maria understands God’s way for her, the heavenly Mother Abbess (played by the beloved and crowd favourite, Jean Edwards) elects to pack her off to the Von Trapp family as governess to the seven children of widowed and notoriously stern Captain Von Trapp.

Maria takes this news quite well considering she has no nanny experience on her CV (the hills would be alive with my piercing screams if it were me, never mind mere music)

Maria’s fun loving and nurturing influence on the difficult children and emotionally detached Captain is almost instantaneous. And with the threat of Nazism ever-looming, Maria only strengthens the Captain’s need to resist the Anschluss by awakening his love and need to protect his family. 

Director, Chris Moss, hasn’t re-invented the wheel with his approach; it’s always going to be a saccharine love story with relentless narrative about overcoming adversity. But Moss has allowed his actors to polish each gem of a character and let the story and show stopping songs unfold in all their glory.

It opens to a triumphant execution of ‘Morning Hymn’ by our nuns; their voices pouring like clear, sparkling honey. Oozing warmth, goodness and feeling, the admiration from the audience tonight is stark and heavy.

Hats, coats, shoes and socks off to Moss and Musical Director, Tim Robinson: exceptional performances are twinned with equally powerful musical numbers. It’s like a scrumptious chocolate box tempting you with all its depths and flavour; each infamous musical number is uplifted by the sheer staunchness from cast and crew.

A pet peeve of mine is not being able to see the live band on stage – it always feels wrong when they’re not visible, like a disservice. Here the band is cleverly situated – almost a silhouette behind the backdrop – and it just feels so special to be able to see the backbone of a show at work, some truly awesome musicians.

Lighting by Matt Bancroft and Tom Berriman is delicate and artistic but punctuates the narrative without missing a beat. I never fail to be amazed at what a cracking lighting director can do – or in this case, two!

However, we do most certainly ‘need to talk about Maria’…Maria is played by Sarah Towle. Don’t quite know where to begin here. Towle’s voice certainly wouldn’t be out of place in various West End starring roles. I, along with the audience, am rejoicing in her presence and natural all inspiring abilities; I feel like I’m watching a bird that’s not yet reached the heights it’s meant for. Towle has tightened the balance between conveying sincerity, humour and wisdom vs mischievous, headstrong, croissant guzzling nanny of the year. Inundated with luminous radiance, she moves with air light steps. What a special person and a genuinely remarkable performer.

Elliot Bishton is precise in his portrayal of Captain Von Trapp; careful and considered. It’s not all stone and severity followed by a blurt of tenderness as soon as he realises his feelings. Rather, his gentleness is roughly concealed by regime and heartache, like wearing a shirt that’s too tight; the underneath is always there, but in dull shades just waiting for the right light to catch them. And we all wait patiently for the penny (and that bloody whistle) to drop before he understands he’s madly in love with our Maria. Bishton is strong, masculine and committed…and what a voice!

The Captain’s good friend – though an unfortunate acceptor of the Anschluss – Max Detweiler, played robustly and ardently by Alan Lowe, is like a big bear hug (a good one). He has comedic charm and a commanding nature; a booming voice and enveloping arms that creates a real magnitude to his presence.

Lucy Robinson’s portrayal as cosmopolitan businesswoman – with similar political views to Max – Elsa Schraeder, is bright and sparkling in all the right places. Candid in her affections and designs towards The Captain, Robinson makes her likeable, but moreover identifiable and gracious in her defeat.

This production is a landmark occasion for the Mellows, as Jean Edwards, who plays Mother Abbess, portrayed Maria in their initial performance of the show in 1991. Clearly a fan favourite, Edwards is very much-loved tonight. Her faultless notes go down a thunderous storm and the audience brims with appreciation and respect.

The children are all played with devotion and impish loveliness. All characters but Leisl have two children alternating. Tonight’s Gretl – the youngest of the children – is played by a gorgeously sweet and talented, Ivy Veasey. Her bonny face is all roses, light and innocence as she easily steals the hearts of the audience.

Cannot forget to mention the dedication on display by all involved in wardrobe. Scrupulous detail and obviously a labour of love – I was really impressed with the curtain outfits: Bra – effing – vo!

My favourite line in The Sound of Music is a line in ‘Maria’…’How do you solve a problem like Maria? How do you hold a moonbeam in your hand? I get it, I do – you’re not meant to solve it. It just is. Like tonight. And that’s my keepsake as I trot off home: the streets of Burton alive with the Mellow’s Sound of Music. We thank you.

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