The cutbanks are alive with the sound of music

On Tuesday it was announced to the world that Theodore Bikel passed away at the age of 91.

On Tuesday, The Sound Of Music opened at the Prince George Playhouse.

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Bikel was born in Austria in 1924.

He, with his family, had to flee for their lives to escape the German invasion of his peaceful home country. Bikel rose through the theatre ranks of London and New York thanks to his riveting acting presence and his large, sensitive singing voice. The awards had already piled up around him when he was called upon by superstar composers Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein to play the male lead in a play about an Austrian father-figure who had to gather his talented, vibrant family and flee the Nazis with nothing but their art - an amazing ability to sing - on which to live.

Bikel was the first actor to play Captain Von Trapp in the freshly minted play The Sound Of Music. Once they saw him in rehearsal action, Rodgers and Hammerstein changed the script and the soundtrack to include a song called Edelweiss especially for him - a song that is now one of the world's most beloved showtunes from one of the most beloved productions of all time.

Like a handover made by the fates of drama, Bikel's voice was silenced just as it was taken up by Matt Russell, who cut his own fine figure of paternal and patriotic authority on stage in Prince George.

Russell, though young, is a veteran of the musical theatre stage. No part has ever been such a fine fit, though. A father of two young children himself, he was adept at emanating military spine and the masculine social jibe of that era, but also knew how to look his on-stage children in the eye and what tones to take as a father. Like Bikel, his singing voice is technically skilled and wrapped in a blanket of warmth.

Another handoff of fate happened at the doors to the audience gallery. Pleasantly presenting programs was Krista Dunlop, the last local actor to portray the role of Maria, the female lead and one of the most lionized characters in musical theatre history. Dunlop won the Playhouse audience in 2003 and it hasn't been done since.

This cast was swollen with actors finally getting their chance. Director-choreographer-producer Judy Russell and her casting team had piles of applicants, but there can only be one Maria and it was to be Shelby Meaney, a Prince George triple threat who has been in scores of performances, many of them by Russell, had moved to the professional ranks in Toronto, but had never been the precise fit for a leading role. Until now.

And Prince George will never forget it. It will be hard for another actor to be taken seriously in the role again, in this city, after the performance turned in by Meaney in this version.

It's what Meaney doesn't do that best shows off her powerful stage abilities.

Because there was no showing off at all. This trait actually rubbed off on the rest of the cast. Her singing voice is so powerful and perfect, her dancing so smooth and studied, that she never appears to be working these techniques.

The skill of acting is hardest to come by for a musical theatre performer - the ability to be so cognizant of character that you cease to play the script and just live it. Meany lives this role like a young girl dancing for joy to an audience of only mountaintops and wildflowers. So brilliant was Meaney that one might almost feel sorry for her being here in her hometown, but knowing she is about to embark to the Middle East for a year of theatre there tempers that concern and turns it into gratitude. We are all lucky to have Meaney amongst us. After this performance she deserves her own Hell Yeah page on Facebook.

Others got their chance, too. Bev Smith has indeed played important roles in important local productions in the past, but as Mother Abbess she gets to act more than ever before. There were a couple of moments when what I was beholding on stage gave me goosebumps, but Smith's skysoaring rendition of Climb Every Mountain blew a chill over me from head to toe. I had to fight tears and the curious realization I wasn't sad, just overwhelmed by beauty.

The same goes for Sandra Clermont in the role of Baroness Schraeder. She accomplished the almost impossible, making us believe she is a captain of industry, meritorious in business, yet beguiling enough to win the affection of a heartbroken widower, yet unable to fully melt his children. It's a complex set of emotions in a small space of script.

Clermont has been seen in roles large and small over the years, involving degrees of comedy and fun, but this one finally let us in on her impressive dramatic abilities. She has been a mainstay of musical theatre but here we have someone who would thrive with the material of David Mamet or Harold Pinter without the cover of dance or facade humour.

After those performances, add an onslaught of talent in the roles of the children, the nuns, the Von Trapp friends, even the glimpses of Nazi soldiers are wonderfully delivered. The orchestra was just excellent.

There were, naturally, some opening night hiccups. Every night of live theatre has it. But even a misspoken line or two came off as the way people naturally trip on their tongue and have to reframe their words sometimes. Character was never broken.

Russell had this cast strictly play their roles straight to each other, as though the gallery was empty, which gives that elusive theatre effect of falling deeply into the humanity of the performances, not the technique of the performances.

Of course the gallery was not empty.

Almost every show has sold to capacity before the first curtain rose on this set Sound Of Music productions. The old adage that Prince George is a last-minute town for buying tickets to anything has been flushed away with this show. The seats were spoken for in furious fashion.

Russell announced the morning after opening night that two new performances had been added. The schedule now also includes a matinee at 1:30 p.m. on Sunday and a 1 p.m. matinee on Aug. 1 in addition to the other opportunities on the original schedule. Tickets are available while they last at Studio 2880.

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