I can't pretend to know what it's like to design a number of elaborate stage sets with next to no money, but I can describe the results. In fact, I'm still trying to shake the memory of Michael Brooks' terrifically horrible set designs for The Sound of Music, which I sat all the way through the other night at Stagebrush Theatre.
This is a community theater production, so I knew what I might be in for: subpar performances, cheapjack costuming, bargain-basement musical accompaniment. This is the sort of production about which people are always saying I should be generous, since it's done "on a shoestring" (that's a polite way of saying "with no money and hardly any talent"). I found enough to like about this production that I might have attempted largesse, but just as I was beginning to enjoy myself, another of Brooks' horrid creations would teeter into view, and my toes would curl again.
Ambition -- and not limited resources or smallish talents -- is the curse of small-time theater. Community playhouses are forever mounting shows that take place in vast ballrooms and are elaborately scored for twelve instruments, then setting them down on paperboard sets behind which a four-piece high school band struggles to keep time. It's especially unwise to attempt a show as well-known and well-loved as The Sound of Music; try though you might, there's no shaking either the memory of Julie Andrews in the film or Mary Martin's original renditions of the Rodgers and Hammerstein score.
The Sound of Music
Stagebrush Theatre, 7020 East Second Street, Scottsdale
Continues through August 5.
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Director D. Scott Withers (who's also the company's interim artistic director) has taken on this challenge, all the same. He's managed some nice touches: The Sisters of Nonnberg Abbey sing the opening "Preludium" from the house, an ethereal kickoff to an otherwise conservative musical. And the kiddies assembled here are something of a revelation. It's tough to find a single amateur child actor who can hit his mark, let alone seven of them. But Withers has snagged a gaggle of von Trapps, each cuter and more capable than the last.
Still, it's a full hour before a really fine performance arrives onstage. Jeremie McCubbin marches out at 9 p.m. and steals every scene thereafter as Uncle Max, one of the most expendable musical theater roles ever written (second only to Gypsy's Herbie, another based-on-fact fellow with nothing to do). And it's always a pleasure to discover Carrie Oliver in the cast of any musical. As Mother Superior, she's handed the daunting "Climb Every Mountain," which she performs not like a Broadway belter, but with a graceful, soaring soprano that garnered a well-deserved end-of-act ovation.
But none of these performances equaled the entertainment value of Brooks' sets, which provided unintentional laughs throughout. My favorite moment came when a door in the von Trapp living room became stuck open, affording the audience a full view of the four-piece orchestra wedged snugly just beyond the jamb. After a few moments, bassist Josh Weinstein, clad in a garish Hawaiian print shirt and still wielding his giant upright, managed to wrestle the door shut while the horrified von Trapps pretended to ignore him. Hee hee!
There's no guaranteeing that the door chez von Trapp won't have been fixed by now, or that a stagehand won't have oiled the shrieking hinges of Mother Superior's wobbly office. So I'd recommend skipping Stagebrush's The Sound of Music, and heading instead to www.andidiva.scriptmania.com, a gossipy site authored by former Stagebrush hanger-on Andi Watson. There, alongside photos of the webmistress picnicking with the company's recently ousted artistic director and costumer, you'll find a scandal sheet full of lowbrow tittle-tattle from the depths of local theater despair. Her "Forum" page, in which angry thespians spill dirt and insinuate about one another's sexual orientation, is even more entertaining than watching giant children scaling an out-of-scale pile of paperboard Alps.