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Arts and Entertainment

Springfield Little Theatre Opens New Production of "The Sound Of Music"

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(Poster design courtesy Springfield Little Theatre)
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Chuck Rogers of Springfield Little Theatre joined KSMU’s Randy Stewart on “Arts News” to talk about “The Sound of Music,” SLT’s new production opening tonight (Jan 29) and running through February 14 at the Landers Theatre, 311 E. Walnut and streaming online.                                                                                      

“It’s great to be opening the show,” Rogers said. “We've been in rehearsal now for about 10 weeks, and we had a tremendous preview last night with good audience response. And, you know, it's just great to be bringing this this classic wonderfully comfortable show back to the area in this in this day and time.”

We talked about the differences between the stage version and the familiar mid-1960s film adaptation with Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer. Chuck Rogers says there are actually some major differences. “There are two songs specific to the movie that are not in the original production, and that is ‘I Have Confidence’ that Julie Andrews sings, and the song in the second act called ‘Something Good’ that Captain von Trapp and Maria sing.” Rogers didn’t want to speculate as to whether either song should be in the stage version of “Sound of Music,” but he went on to mention another big difference between stage and film.

“The characters of Max, Captain von Trapp’s best friend and the (Salzburg) festival coordinator, and (von Trapp’s) soon-to-be fiancee, Elsa Schrader-- those roles are much expanded in the Broadway show from they are in the film. There are two songs, actually, in  our production that are not in the film. A wonderful showcase for two very talented leading performers.” The actors in either role in the movie don’t sing at all. “Their work is primarily to further the story between Christopher Plummer and Julie Andrews.”

I asked Rogers about his cast for this production, and we talked extensively about the challenges of doing live theater during a pandemic. For one thing, SLT had “no idea going into it what type of response we were going to have” in terms of people auditioning for the show. But he was gratified by the response and assembled an excellent cast. “Erin Payne, who is a recent graduate from the Evangel Music Theater Department, showed up at auditions and she is every inch Maria. And it's not that she's a ‘recreation’ of Julie Andrews or ‘classic reinterpretation.’ She plays (Maria) as a strong, independent young woman that I think is irrelevant to our day and age. And again, it's why ‘The Sound of Music’ is so relevant and is continually performed over and over and over again because it's always relevant to the way we perceive our society, the way we perceive family. Jarrod Cate, who is one of our instructors over at (SLT’s) education facility, is Captain von Trapp.He is very familiar to our audience, is he was in ‘Forbidden Broadway Greatest Hits.’ And the chemistry with him between him and Erin… we had all of our fifth graders from our magnet school at the show last night, and they were just enamored of Maria and Captain von Trapp. So that was a good sign.” He said the kids “ooh’ed” and “ah’ed” appreciatively during the love scenes. Hey, if fifth graders can get into the romantic aspect of the story, everyone can!

The seven young actors playing the Von Trapp children range in age from 8 to 18, most of whom most of them are Springfield Little Theatre veterans and have grown up in SLT’s Education Series. All, that is, except Loralei Blevins, who plays Gretel, the youngest Von Trapp child. She’s a “newbie.” “And,” added Chuck Rogers, “she's going to become a star in their own right as soon as she gets older!  But it's wonderful to see these seven young people create their own dynamics and their own new sense of family and all of tha--all while masked!”

The cast members have worn face masks since the auditions, Rogers said. “And ironically, I didn't see anybody's face until last week. We have a terrific new type of clear mask that that we are using and it is virtually invisible to the audience. It covers the lower half of the face, but it's really clear and it doesn't really reflect light very well, and it's great for microphones.” Everyone in the cast is individually miked.

Still, the actors’ mouths are simply not as visible as they would be without masks of any kind, which made Chuck Rogers realize “how important it is to see people's lips, when you can't see a person's mouth. We have learned a lot about how to communicate with our eyes. And it's a wonderful thing I think I'm going to take away from this pandemic: how important what you say with your eyes is, because we've lost that that sense of communication we have with our whole face.”

Another casualty of social distancing is the live orchestra.  There is none for this production of “Sound of Music.” Little Theatre will utilize pre-recorded orchestral tracks supplied by “Sound of Music’s” publisher. “They’re fully orchestrated and contain all of the transitions and all of that.” Rogers acknowledged it’s a “very different” way to work on a stage musical, and the experience has taught him “how important live music is to what we do. There is a give and take between a music director and a live trumpet player, a live drummer and a live singer on stage there.” He said he and his cast had to work hard during rehearsals to avoid becoming “rote” in performing their songs to a pre-recorded orchestra track that never varies in tempo or phrasing. It’s up to the performers onstage to do that all by themselves. “The thing that we've had to learn is, you still have to be spontaneous when you sing, you still have to reinterpret the music. And it's it's so difficult, different, and it adds such a different flavor to the overall process of putting a show together.

“And the other thing that we've learned,” said Rogers, “is I could not have an ensemble (chorus). ‘The Sound of Music’ is written for, like, a 25-person chorus (who variously portray) nuns, party guests, Nazis. They're all written into the music, so there’s that fully orchestrated and full choir sound.. So we've got in the show the 20 speaking roles in the show, and that's what we have.” Luckily, many more people auditioned than could be accommodated in the cast, and Rogers was able to enlist their participation as well. He brought in “a lot of the people who auditioned for the show that we weren't able to use a couple of weeks ago and started rehearsing them. And we've recorded them and recorded all of the beautiful music that's in the show. And so it's presented in its entirety to our audiences, but it's all (pre) recorded. And people still get the opportunity to have been a part of the show, even though they may not actually be appearing on the stage.”

The folks at SLT are thrilled to be able to continue producing live theatre in what Rogers called “this strange and weird world that we’re living in, and to do it safely. The people have figured out that it’s important to them. Community theater is important in their lives and they want to be safe. So they take the necessary precautions. I think the key word here is striving for some sort of normalcy in your life. I mean, I'm a career community theater person. And I don't know what my life would be if, last June, we had to shut the doors. I don't know what our volunteers’ lives would be like. I definitely know what our community’s life without Springfield Little Theatre would be like. We're a cornerstone. I hate to brag, but I feel like we're embedded in this community. And I think to be able to do something to allow normalcy is super important.”

Speaking of ‘normalcy,’ patrons can either attend these “Sound of Music” performances live in person at the Landers with socially distanced seating, or they can live stream every performance from their own computers. Chuck Rogers said Springfield Little Theatre is “in the forefront of streaming.” Eli Cunningham has been in charge of producing the video streams of LT’s live stage productions since last summer, and Rogers feels “he has created an incredible streaming experience. It's just like watching Broadway HD. It really is. And you can just call the box office and they'll talk you through it. And it's so easy to do. Easy. Easy to do. So take advantage of that.”

If patrons do feel comfortable attending performances in person, the Landers is currently seating 150 people in an auditorium that normally seats 542. “Everyone is distanced, and everyone wears masks.”  Also, the concession stand is closed, and gathering in the Landers lobby is discouraged. In fact, Rogers said, “We encourage people to go to the bathroom during the show rather than waiting for it. Just go ahead and get up. We don’t care—you’re not going to be stepping in front of anybody!” And at the end of the evening audience members are dismissed by rows—“kind of like school,” said Rogers. “But we're doing what we have to do, and I really feel thankful that we're able to do it. And I really feel like our patrons that are taking advantage of what we do are feeling good, feeling safe, feeling happy that we're able to get back out there to provide some sense of normalcy.”

Again, “The Sound of Music,” the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic, opens tonight at the Landers Theatre, 311 East Walnut, and continues through Valentine's Day, February 14. Performances are Thursdays through Sundays: 7:30pm Thursday through Saturday evenings, and 2:00pm matinees on Saturdays and Sundays during that period.

For information, call the Landers box office at 869-1334 or visit www.springfieldlittletheatre.org.