Candlelight Dinner Theater continues its 2013 season with the Rodgers And Hammerstein classic The Sound Of Music, giving audiences in search of wholesome family entertainment an entertaining production blessed by the best Maria von Trapp this side of Julie Andrews.

img_8155 Yes, there are moments in The Sound Of Music that still prove more than a tad sugary to theater sophisticates. Yes, even a trio of singing nuns can still at times seem about three nuns too many. And yes, historical purists still have every right to carp about the show’s factual inaccuracies. (How’s this for fudging with geography? An escape over Maria’s beloved mountains would have taken her and the von Trapp Family Singers smack dab into Nazi Germany and not into Switzerland, 200 miles away!)

Still, when you’ve got a Maria who can steal your heart from her first entrance as Sarah Elizabeth Combs does on the Candlelight stage, the above gripes seem minor indeed.

Combs had only recently scored an Ovation Award nomination for her stellar performance as Johanna in Musical Theater West’s Sweeney Todd when the Las Vegas production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom Of The Opera came a-calling. Now, two and a half years later, The Sound Of Music marks Combs triumphant return to our Southern California stages under the experienced direction of Douglas Austin.

61756_10200526777362239_1582378016_n Not only is Combs as lovely to look at as her angelic soprano is to the ears, she imbues the role of Maria with warmth and spunk and heart. You may enter the theater with a certain Julie in your mind, but it’s Combs’ charming, effervescent, enchanting Maria that you will carry out of the theater with you.

535831_10200526742401365_1957724376_n John LaLonde plays Georg von Trap, and a fine Captain he is, a tall, dark, and handsome “older man” likely to turn any vocation-doubting novice’s head, and as splendid as singer as they come, the romantic chemistry between Combs and LaLonde proving icing on the cake. (As a side note, LaLonde once played Papa to Combs’ Luisa on the very same stage.)

As for the von Trapp children, Courtney Cheatham, Katie Ochoa, Ross DeLong, Brennley Brown, Nathan Lightfoot, Jenna Heskin, and Sequoia Valverde perform with professionalism, harmonize to perfection, and act with infectious zest.

Cheatham in particular makes for a charming Leisl opposite the teen-idol handsome Zack Crocker as her romantic interest Rolf, the duo not only lending their lovely vocals to “Sixteen Going On Seventeen,” but executing choreographer Ann Myers’ lively, imaginative dance steps with vitality and verve.

526481_10200530253969152_1155040622_n Kim Blake brings years of musical theater and opera experience to the role of the Mother Abbess, concluding Act One with a stirring “Climb Every Mountain.” Alongside Blake, Jody Orrison (Sister Sophia), Valerie Jasso (Sister Berthe), and Kate Lee (Sister Margaretta) join voices (and opposing viewpoints) in a futile but very funny attempt to “solve a problem like Maria” in song.

The role of Captain von Trapp’s would-be fiancée Elsa benefits from Dimyana Pelev’s glorious soprano, while Frank Minano plays Trapp family friend Max Detweiler with ebullience and flair. The duo’s “How Can Love Survive?” was cut from the movie but here provides a welcome dose of tartness amidst the sweetness around them. (Sadly, Elsa and Max’s second R&H song, “No Way To Stop It,” ends up on the cutting room floor this time round.)

The Sound Of Music’s other musical numbers, including its title song, “Edelweiss”, “My Favorite Things”, and “Do-Re-Mi,” will surely ring audience bells, as will “I Have Confidence” and “Something Good,” written for the movie adaptation, all of the above sung to perfection by Combs, LaLonde, and the von Trapp children.

Cameo roles are ably handled by Steven Biggs (Franz, the butler), Jasso (Frau Schmidt), Lee (Baroness Elberfeld), Robert Meyer (Baron Elberfeld and Admiral Schreiber), John Nisbet (Herr Zeller), Ochoa (Sister Bernice), and Orrison (Frau Zeller).

404408_10200530225648444_2138357166_n In addition to the abovementioned “Sixteen Going On Seventeen,” choreographer Myers finds ingenious ways to integrate movement and dance into The Sound Of Music, in particular a charming Austrian dance which allows Combs and LaLonde to show off their dancing feet.

Doubling as musical director, Austin elicits all-around excellent vocal work from his cast. Acting-wise, some performances could benefit from greater attention to creating real, three-dimensional characters. Having numerous cast members in dual roles generally works quite well. Less successful is the cutting down of the usually exquisite “Preludium” to a handful of female voices. Orchestral accompaniment is prerecorded, but sounds almost live thanks to Candlelight’s excellent sound system. Voices and instruments were expertly mixed without mike problems at the performance reviewed.

Period Austrian costumes by Theatre Company look great, as do Cliff and Kat Senior’s wigs. A beautifully rendered von Trapp villa terrace represents the best of SteveGDesign, a set that looks particularly spiffy as lit for the Act Two party scene by lighting designer Steve Giltner. Non-terrace scenes, however, are mostly played in front of painted scrims, giving sequences set on an Alpine mountainside, in Maria’s bedroom, or at the abbey a cheap, bus-and-truck look.

Alternating as the youngest five von Trapp children are Matthew Funke, Haven Watts, Wyatt Larrabee, Brooklyn Vizcarra, and Alison Broabard, who appear in production stills but whose work is not reviewed here. Brittany Webb is their studio teacher.

Scheduling The Sound Of Music between the more adult oriented I Left My Heart: A Salute To The Music Of Tony Bennett and the upcoming Sweet Charity and The Full Monty is a savvy programming decision by General Manager Michael Bollinger, carrying on the Bollinger family tradition at Candlelight Dinner Theatre. That it entertains audiences of all ages is icing on the cake.

Candlelight Pavilion, 455 W. Foothill Blvd., Claremont.

–Steven Stanley
February 10, 2013
Photos: Isaac James Creative

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