There is a reason I don’t like localized productions; let me be up front about it. I see it as a gross insult to my intelligence that the powers that be have assumed that I couldn’t possibly grasp the concept of the story without it being “dumbed down” to my cultural understanding. There is also a splitting headache and an underwhelming sensation that accompanies having to endure unnecessary references to our political climate, random interjections of KFC, Royal Castle or some other far-fetched anecdotes obscenely scattered throughout the dialogue, which has absolutely nothing to do with, and/or does nothing to develop the plot seriously compromising the integrity of the story. There, I said it!
“The year is 2020 and the political division spearheaded by the National Socialist party, whose slogan is “We Know What’s best for you” tears at the fabric of Trinidad and Tobago. They plan to stage and have some public support for a bloodless coup d’etat to remove the ruling party and take over the government”
~ An excerpt from First instinct Productions “The Sound of Music”.
Yes folks it was one of those… a localized production, but I knew this going in. Yup! I encountered Trevon (The producer of First instinct Productions) on several occasions and admired his passion for the art form. When he decided to launch his company, and took on the mantle of producer I decided to show my support by attending the auditions. I auditioned (one I’m not too proud of.. Argh! I went blank during my monologue), but the overall audition was satisfactory enough to the panel to cast me in the ensemble. Now, though no longer a cast member, I still wanted to support the production so I made the sacrifice and bought me a ticket, (I actually bought a ticket instead of groceries. I’m a hot mess aren’t I) and attended the final performance on Sunday 22nd April 2012.
Before I continue, for those who may be oblivious to the original story, with the book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, and music and lyrics by Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein II (credited as Rogers & Hammerstein), the Sound of Music is based on the memoir of Maria von Trapp: The Story of the Trapp Family Singers, and is set in Salzburg Austria, during the late 1930’s, just before World War II.
World War II ended in 1945 but First Instinct has set their production of the Sound of Music 75 years later. By this time, Hitler has been dead for about … *thinks* … forever, and Nazis no longer exist as a thriving movement, if at all (there are always conspiracy theories). The change in the period in which it was set has serious implications for the conflict development, logic and consistency of the story, so there were other changes to the original script to circumvent these issues for the purpose of this production. eg. Changing the name of what should be Hitler’s Nazi troops to the National Socialist Party. In the context of its localness, other name changes were warranted as well… primarily in the locations mentioned or featured, some of the language and jargon used, as well as the character names. I mean, who the hell in Trinidad is going to be walking around with the title “Baroness Schrader”?. .. but I will get to that in a moment.
The curtains parted to reveal a mostly bare stage, the Bishop Anstey High School Steel Ensemble on top of a green platform (Yes! Steelpa, a recurring element throughout the rest of the show. It’s set in Trinidad remember) and opened with the overture, Miss Loraine Granderson conducted in the pits where the other musicians, Gregory Wong Fu Sue on keyboards and Everald ‘Redman’ Watson the percussionist played. It was such a rich, full sound, and so well executed that my heart started to beat like the wings of the birds that rise from the lake through the trees. With no disrespect to Mr. Wong Fu Sue (A very talented musician in my opinion) I thanked the stars that the accompaniment wasn’t just him on the keyboard as I have become accustomed to in other musical productions . A keyboard alone, ONE KEYBOARD in a MUSICAL can never compare to the full awesomeness of an orchestra. In a musical the QUALITY of the MUSIC matters, and unfortunately many of the newer production companies seem to sacrifice that factor in favor of producing a visual spectacle. Ah Yes! The Overture was beautiful. I think I even forgot for a moment that it was a steel band playing. It sounded like a recording with a million and one strings, a timpani or two, and all the other instruments that the orchestrator envisioned for the score. I wasn’t feeling the localness that I dreaded. This production was off to a good start…
Or perhaps I spoke to soon. Maria Rainer (Tova Miller) glided onto the stage in true Disney princess fashion as the overture swelled in prelude to the title song, “The Sound of Music”… with a Caribbean, calypso esk beat…. WHAT!!!!??? My bubble was popped! I snapped back to reality, oh there goes gravity. Oh my God! The localized- ness starts already… *facepalm* peeks through fingers… Oh lord, now she’s jibbing on the hill. I could have sworn I was having a panic attack or perhaps it was because I was at the nosebleed level of the theatre (The highest floor). I had to calm myself down. I looked at my reflection in the railing (I could see the director Raymond Choo Kong and choreographer Abeo Jackson sitting directly two floors below me) I looked at myself and said “Self! Stop being so dramatic you drama queen you! Every time you come to the theatre with the mindset of ‘THIS IS HOW IT SHOULD BE’ you ruin the experience for yourself. Come with an open mind. Appreciate it for what it is, not what you think it should be. Do not compare it to what has played in Broadway or the West End or let your previous experiences blind you to what this production is. Let the production stand on its own!” So I did. I sat back and surrendered myself. Once I released myself from that apprehension, when Maria entered the home of Captain George Trapp, the decorated coast guard officer (Kearn Samuel), with her luggage and tenor pan in hand (instead of a guitar), I couldn’t help but be amused.
Tova was an amazing actress and portrayed the innocence of Maria quite well even though I believed she missed many opportunities to deliver that innocence with the humor of Julie Andrews (Maria in the Sound of Music Film), I had to keep reminding myself to not compare. Tova certainly has a beautiful range as well, though at times I would have appreciated a more classical tone, a rounding of the notes if you will, but that’s just my bias. I especially loved the power with which she delivered her high notes.
Mother Superior’s voice (Glenis Yearwood) was absolutely heavenly. As for the Bishop Anstey High School Choir, who provided additional vocals from the pits… how do I put this? They weren’t bad… in fact they were perfect for providing vocal support for the children. However, when it came to providing additional vocals for the Nuns of the St. Dominic’s Nunnery, their voices were a bit too… green… too young for my taste. More mature voices were needed for that part. But it is what it is.
All the children were exceptional in their performance. Lisa, played by Fayola King, Frederick played by Ellijah Wilson, who had impeccable comedic timing by the way, Louisa played by Zayna Mc Donnald, Kurt played by Ryan Quesnel, Bridget played by Ellyse Eligon, Martha played by Cailin Bell and Giselle by the adorable 7 year old Aleisha Eligon. One thing I noticed though and I noticed this only because of Glee. Kurt’s G7 ‘goodbye’ in “So long, farewell” was given to Frederick (Ellijah) who floated the note so effortlessly to thunderous applause, hoots and hollers from the audience in true trini style. How does Glee fit into this? Here’s a backstage story for you… Chris Colfer’s character Kurt was named after The Sound of Music’s Kurt because the high, counter tenoryness of Chris’ audition reminded the director of Kurt from the sound of music film… that and both S.O.M’s Kurt and Chris had rosy cheeks. True Story.
The Chemistry between The Captain (Kearn) and Elsa Dieffenthaller (Cecilia Salazar) was intense. Cecilia, a veteran to these kinds of roles… a veteran to the stage as a matter of fact, exuded the class and flirtatiousness that her character required. She even took the liberty in delivering her “Smoking Cigar” line in a way that only adults should understand (I loved that).
This contrasted well with Kearn’s portrayal of a stern, disciplinarian, military, uptight and clearly sexually frustrated Captain Trapp, providing many opportunities for comedy, and they seized them all. It is such a pity that the musical numbers which would have included the Baroness *cough*, I mean Mrs Dieffenthaller (“How can love survive” and “No way to stop this”) were not included in this production, I would have loved to hear C.S. sing. Beautiful women should always sing, especially when they wear a red dress! #justsaying !
The producer (Trevon Jugmohan) and Executive Producer (John Smith) both made their appearances in the production. Trevon I can only describe as freaking hilarious. He delivers his lines so candidly and brings a reality to his character; the loveable, charming, funny and a little bit cheeky Uncle Max. I have worked with Mr. Smith before in two productions prior where he functioned as the sound designer and the occasional ‘voice of God’ that commands the more restless cast members to settle down during rehearsals, or stop screaming into the mics. This was my first time seeing him on stage and it was a welcomed treat. His natural build and stern and domineering personality lends itself well to the role of Minister Saunders of the Nationalist Socialist Party, who came to the home of the Von-Traps to escort the captain to his post in the Coast Guard of the newly formed government. Mark Nottingham as Mayor Miller however was a bit too over the top and caricature-ish to be appreciated in the same setting as everyoneelse who played their characters so naturally. It was very distracting. I also felt that Luke Samerson who played Ralf delivered all his lines very cold, monotonously and emotionlessly. I’m not sure if that was what the director was shooting for but I would have appreciated some dimensions to the character.
The stage craft was well thought out and well designed: Lighting design by Bente Lashley, sound by Treldon Thompson, costumes by Ian Smith , and set design by Gylerni Clarke . Speaking of sets… Oh my god! The set changes were unbefrickingleivably well choreographed. If I didn’t know better I’d have thought they were automated. This production had the best set changes I have ever seen. Truth be told, that is the magic in the theatre for me; the set changes, the ability to create the illusion of a seamless transition to a different place, within the same place. I always loved when they returned to the Nunery, you have to see it to understand what I mean.
I usually don’t like localized productions. Let me be up front about it. I see it as a gross insult to my intelligence and seriously compromise the integrity of the story, so I am reluctant to patronize them. That being said, this localized production of the sound of music was a stroke of pure genius. It gave the choreographer so much creative freedom; freedom to think outside the box that was established by the million and one productions of S.O.M. before them. Do you recall in the film when the children first ventured out in their play clothes with Maria, mingled with common folk and sang “Do Re Mi”? Well the Port of Spain market was that common place of folk where the smingling occurred (singing + mingling= smingling. My new made up word! TM). “Do Re mi” was performed to a calypso beat and villagers came dancing into the market square in true best village fashion. It was amazing. Likewise the duet of the young lovers, Lisa (Fayola Granerson) and Ralf (Luke Sammerson), “I am 16 going on 17” was performed to a Hip hop beat. The music and lyrics did not change, just the rhythm behind it. Supported by a more urban styled choreography, this added a unique quality to the performance and helped affirm the period in 21st century, Trinidad. During this song though, Fayola’s singing felt a bit breathy and inadequately supported at times, giving a sort of weak, falsetto quality. Likewise Luke was a bit adenoidal. Where vocals faltered though, they sure made up for in dancing.
This localized production was well though out. Carefully planned from the locations, the language, the style of the play. The story was not compromised; my intelligence did not feel insulted. In fact, I felt respected that the rewrite was so in depth. The persons that worked on the script and staging this production i.e. the director, choreographer, and producers had the decency to meticulously go through the script, omit the things that did not make sense and replace it with material that enhanced the story, not detach from it. I respect and applaud their efforts and though they didn’t seem envision a way to exclude “Edelweiss” from the script, a very Austrian tribute “Edelweiss, Edelweiss bless my homeland forever…”(We don’t have Edelweiss here.. they’re in the Alps), they made up for it in the eleven o’ clock number when the Trapp family singers performed the National Anthem of Trinidad and Tobago as their final song at the song festival at NAPA before escaping to the Hills of Laventille. If ever there was a moment that celebrated the country in which it was set, it was the National anthem and the patrons rose to their feet during that performance in an act of patriotism. I got goose bumps then, I got goose bumps while typing and I got goose bumps reading it back. I was sold! Best freaking production ever!
“Raymond Choo Kong is directing a musical? Doh Lie!” I couldn’t believe it either
~ An excerpt from The Wizard of Oz Director’s note
In 2009 Raymond dipped his toes in the life water that is musical theatre to the skepticism of many, having been known for mostly “sex comedies” prior. He did so again in 2010, or was it late 2009 with the same company to unfavorable reviews. With the conclusion of the sound of music Uncle Ray, consider yourself baptized. Hats off to you. And to Trevon, the producer, keep doing what you’re doing bro! You’re on your way.
I like your review. very good , very indebt (so badly missing in the media) , and agree with almost 90% of your statements and feelings/ Helmer
[Reposting from FB] You know, I’m glad someone is discussing the localisation thing. I didn’t see SOM, so can’t really discuss that specifically. But I’ve had discussions with people on both ends of the spectrum… Some think nothing should ever be localised because it’s untrue to the original script/score and undermines the intent of the author/composer. Others think it makes no sense to do something, particularly something very culturally specific (which most musicals in particular are), in T&T with T&T actors without adapting the material to the look and sound of the performers… Of course, sometimes it’s a matter of fairly cynically ‘dumbing it down’ so you attract/retain local audiences (though I think we often underestimate our audiences… then again, we sometimes overestimate them, LOL).
I’m actually sympathetic to both arguments. The challenge for the ‘purists’, though, is to credibly present a production that is set in a very specific foreign time and place and to retain those references. I don’t think you can do that without serious attention to the actors’ voice, speech & movement, and the design of the whole production. I haven’t seen that successfully happen here, though I truly haven’t seen every production that’s passed. Our local theatre training — as far as I know — doesn’t emphasise English language speech & diction, far less the nuances of mastering international & regional accents. We have plenty people who *think* they can do good accents… but fail miserably. It seems we value dramaturgy even less. We approximate everything from speech to the style of the set, costumes, movement — if we try at all — and figure “dah go wuk – who go know de difference?”
On the flip side, I think localisation/adaptation in itself is not the mortal sin it’s often portrayed to be. LOL. If you recognise ‘issues’ with representing the original material honestly and credibly, I think it’s actually a smart decision to make some adjustments to ensure the show’s credibility. This can be tricky (assuming that one’s gone the official, legal route) as the right to adapt is not freely given in many instances if the work isn’t public domain. But I much prefer thoughtful, dramaturgically sensitive adaptation or localisation that I can *believe* than seeing people trying to play characters in a certain time & place with the wrong accents (my biggest peeve), the wrong costumes, etc.
The most common & successful adaptations are probably of classical texts — ancient texts through to the early (Western) realists — and of operas. There, internationally, they often experiment with *coherently* modernising/localising all elements of the production, freeing people to use their own voice or accents (so that you can take the lead in ‘The Scottish Play’ without being Scottish, or play Carmencita without being a French-singing Spanish lass, lol), and even doing cross-gender casting. It really unpacks the original material, and can make the work really exciting. Hope to start trying some of that myself here in years to come…
And thanks for the discourse, Triston. It’s a fairly balanced review (ie putting your biases or potential conflicts of interest out there and still giving a pretty fair assessment of the work). We don’t see much of those days. 😉 The golden era of reviewers in the local media seems long gone (yes, we had them once!), hopefully to make a resurgence.
Very indepth review. I appreciate the time and effort taken to d0this. I totally agree that ladies in red dresses should sing and at first I said I would only do the part if I could sing….(unfortunately no one took me seriously} I had the best time in this production, the cast and crew were a joy to work with
It has also inspired me to get some singing lessons for my next BIG Musical role…whenever that may be
By the way I do sing “Fire Fire” by Rose in “Miss Miles-the woman of the world”…in a red dress. Check it out at Naparima Bowl from May24- 27.
Triston, with much needed honest reviews like this one, local theatre presentation standards could improve. I estimate that 20% of local theatrical productions are of a high standard. Do you think producers are up to the challenge? Thanks for sharing, keep it up..