“I have confidence in sunshine/ I have confidence in rain,” sings Maria in The Sound of Music. At the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park there’s always the possibility of both. The rain happily held off on the press night for its first-ever production of a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical (though it has previously presented the Rodgers and Hart shows Babes in Arms and The Boys from Syracuse), and instead only enchantment pours in.
Last year’s revisionist version of Ragtime at this address carelessly saw a musical based on a historical turn of the 20th-century period given a contemporary post 9/11 filter. But Rachel Kavanaugh’s production of this 1959 warhorse of a musical, set against the darkening shadows cast upon Austria by the rise of the Nazis in neighbouring Germany and its take-over of their nation, fortunately plays it straight and with utter sincerity.
There are, of course, parts of this all-too-familiar show that are cloying and annoying – is there a more irritating R&H song than The Lonely Goatherd? But this production glows with a radiant warmth in lieu of the big effects that swamped Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 2006 London Palladium version.
The action spills from Peter McKintosh’s splendid mansion set – which serves double duty as the convent and Captain von Trapp’s house – onto the grass verges and into the auditorium, and it has been beautifully cast throughout to focus on the human relationships at its core.
It is also splendidly sung throughout (though it’s odd that Stuart Matthew Price, one of our finest stage singers, has a non-singing role as von Trapp’s butler). Charlotte Wakefield, recently Sophie in Mamma Mia!, brings a beguiling charm to Maria, and is spiritedly reunited with her stage mum from that show, Helen Hobson, who is now playing a different kind of mother figure – Mother Abbess, lending lovely tones to Climb Ev’ry Mountain. Michael Xavier, a one-time Sky from Mamma Mia, is able to demonstrate a mature authority as the stiff von Trapp to prove he is leaving juvenile parts behind him.
Other stand-outs include Caroline Keiff and Michael Matus as the opportunistic Elsa and Max respectively, and of course the rotating teams of von Trapp children, led by the adult Faye Brookes as Liesl.