There is nothing like the sight of a swastika to haul a show away from sentimentality. During the 2006 London revival of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein’s musical, huge Nazi flags unfurled down the length of the Palladium’s walls. Schmaltz was instantly replaced by a chilling taste of an alternative history — one in which Britain had indeed been invaded and London’s landmarks were bedecked by the red, white and black of Hitler’s Germany.
In Rachel Kavanaugh’s production, when the von Trapp family sing at the first Salzburg festival following the Anschluss, the impact of that moment isn’t quite as powerful, despite the swastikas and stormtroopers stationed around the Open Air’s auditorium.
Perhaps seeing the flags in a central London landmark that witnessed the Blitz was part of the shock. But wherever this show is staged, the coda in this cosiest of musicals — during which the nun-turned-governess-turned-Baroness Maria and the other von Trapps suddenly find themselves on the run from Nazis — lends a substance without which the evening would have about as much meat as a stick of candy-floss.
Although occasionally making forays into German parody, the child-friendly score is excellent, of course. Do-Re-Mi is as infectious as measles and Sixteen Going On Seventeen and the uber-cute So Long Farewell, sung by the von Trapp children before they go to bed, are melodically beguiling. But before the Nazis arrive, sceptics will have to supply their own antidotes to sentimentality and this adult’s fantasy of how children ought to be. For those who know it, the cloying My Favourite Things will always be made tolerable by John Coltrane’s brilliant jazz reinvention — a version proving that no song is beyond saving.
But often — too often — the numbers come tumbling out in a hurry. The Lonely Goatherd and Climb Ev’ry Mountain are not the only songs launched into and out of with unseemly haste. And when that happens, musicals disintegrate slightly. Still, the singing is very good. Charlotte Wakefield’s impish Maria has something of another Maria — Friedman — about her. Her small frame emits a voice that is easy to imagine echoing through the hills. The audience is the landscape here. In one clever moment, Wakefield sings the title number from atop one of the steeply raked bank of seats. In another, she kicks off her shoes and dangles her feet in the von Trapp castle’s moat. Then Michael Xavier’s straight-backed Captain does the same, neatly revealing the softy within.
And for the softies in the audience this production does pretty much everything that could be asked of it. It’s also enjoyably regressive for those who want to relive the moment they first saw the musical. For me, it was the film version on TV, probably as a pre-teen adolescent. This evening brings back all the best bits of the film and more.