It makes sense that Beth Stovall’s favorite musical is “The Sound of Music.” The opera singer has traveled to Austria 10 times over five years for music training. In fact, the timeline of the famed Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, when the von Trapp family escape their homeland because of the Nazi regime takeover, parallels Stovall’s real-life family, who during the 1930s were emigrated to America from Romania.
“I’ve read letters from my great-great-grandmother, detailing the fear that struck our family and the immediacy with which they escaped,” Stovall says. “I also have actually seen and traveled through the very mountains the von Trapps loved so dearly.”
A former Miss North Carolina, Stovall will play the beloved role of Maria in the upcoming Opera House Theatre Company show. “The Sound of Music” opens Thursday night for a two-weekend run. “Besides being iconic, the lyrics [to the title song, ‘The Sound of Music’] are stunning and very meaningful. It’s a beautiful reminder you can still love and appreciate the beauty of your home, despite any political turbulence or turmoil.”
Director Ray Kennedy is taking the helm again. His last time directing the iconic show for Opera House was in 2004. “More than ever, this production resonates now,” Kennedy says. “Captain von Trapp making a tough decision about the love of his country and direction it is headed is so important; turning his back on a regime that was all about hate, racism and the elevation of a certain part of the population should give us all time to reflect.”
“The Sound of Music” shows how, in the midst of hate, love can breed and empower. The story loosely follows the real-life tale of the Von Trapp Family Singers, who became a popular touring group after World War II. Maria von Trapp wrote her memoir “The Story of the Trapp Family Singers” in 1949, which became the basis of the 1959 Broadway musical and its 1965 film adaptation. The story follows Maria, who is summoned from the local convent—where she’s deciding whether to become a nun or not—to the von Trapp home to tutor the children. She ends up falling in love with the clan, including their widowed father, Captain von Trapp. The patriarch served as a Navy captain and wholeheartedly disagrees with Anschluss, the annexation of Austria into Nazi Germany in 1938.
“I really like the number ‘No Way to Stop It,’” says Zach Hanner, who is playing the captain for the first time. It’s also Hanner’s first performance with OHTC since the late ‘90s.
“[‘No Way…’] is a bouncy, upbeat tune that has a nihilistic message,” Hanner continues. “Frau Schrader and Herr Detweiler attempt to persuade the captain there’s no point in trying to stand up to the Nazis through a finger-snapping number. The captain even joins in with a sneer of sarcasm to show his displeasure for their flippant attitude toward Austria‘s overthrow.”
Though Hanner has no military background to draw from, he’s been working on posture and honing in on a stern and disciplined disposition. It’s an important aspect to nail when paired with the adventurous Maria, with whom he falls in love.
“Normally, in this period of history, a man like Captain von Trapp would have no use for a strong, free-spirited, independent-thinking woman,” Hanner tells of the aristocrat (in real life the family eventually lost their money in the Great Depression). “But the captain, due to Maria’s love for his children, manages to overcome those barriers.”
One of Maria’s principal mentors comes in Mother Abbess, who, through the song “Climb Ev’ry Mountain,” inspires Maria to live her best life, facing and overcoming all obstacles. Playing the Reverend Mother is Elizabeth Field.
“Actually, ‘The Sound of Music’ was the very first musical I participated in at age 9,” she says. “I was a nun then, too. I remember being disappointed at not being cast as one of the von Trapp children. Then they told me they needed me with the nuns to sing the high notes.”
She likens the Mother Abbess character to her maternal grandmother, as both women have stabilizing forces. “She was tough, even strict, but I always knew I was loved,” Field says.
Like Stovall, who grew up connecting more with Tchaikovsky and Beethoven, Field is also an opera singer. It’s the first time the Opera Wilmington performer has been in community theatre in Wilmington. However, she has always loved Richard Rodgers’ music, and even as a child aspired to grow up to be Julie Andrews.
“Music for the Mother Abbess was written with an operatically trained voice in mind and yet lies very low in the voice—then pops up,” Field explains of her character’s vocal range. “It is keeping me on my toes since I am not a mezzo or dramatic soprano. It is a good technical challenge for me.”
Directing the music is pianist Stephen Field, who has enlisted the help of a 10-piece orchestra: Scott Holmes (violin), Greg Bell (strings, second keyboard), Breana Hebert and Toree McLamb (flute), Laura York (clarinet), Casey Black (trumpet), James Lane (trombone), Vince Stout (string bass), and Mitch Hebert (percussion). Naturally, playing a well-known and beloved score is an exciting moment for the director. “One hit follows another,” he says. “It is scored for 26 players. That would be impossible to fit into the pit, so we have to double voices and adjust.”
Kennedy is highlighting the beauty of Austria by utilizing specific lighting techniques from Jeff Loy and set design by Terry Collins. Collins has zeroed in on the Alps and surrounding mountains, as well as the Noonberg Abbey. He has created a stained-glass round window.
“It’s stunning, much like the beautiful window at Wilmington’s First Presbyterian Church, which opens and closes the show,” Kennedy praises. “We are also exposing the beautiful 1858 brickwork at the back of the Thalian Hall stage.”
Debbie Scheu will do the costumes of the period as well. Kennedy is especially excited for the looks on Elsa, the baroness, who is a European sophisticate. “We are basing her wardrobe on Paris and Coco Chanel,” he says. Playing Elsa is Beth Crookham, who studied theater in college and last performed the baroness for OHTC in the early aughts.
“It’s fun to revisit this character with so much more life under my belt and with a different cast of people,” says Crookham, who since has traveled the world, working in the film industry. “I love that most theatergoers don’t realize she is far more complex than her movie version—and I love her wardrobe!”
“The Sound of Music” will open on February 27. Tickets are $25 during Thursday-night shows but go up to $33 for the rest of the run.