The fog rolled in during the opening-night performance of "The Sound of Music ," and the effect was marvelous: Our heads were in the clouds, as if we had really climbed the Austrian Alps to visit the Trapp Family Singers.
Such are the vicissitudes of outdoor theatergoing. If the mist had been just a bit thicker, we would have called it a drizzle and headed for home. As it happened, though, there was a special magic in watching the wedding of Maria wrapped in haze, and even the fireworks that traditionally end the evening at Jones Beach looked a little more mysterious than usual.
"The Sound of Music" is apparently the most popular show in the history of the Jones Beach Theater, having set the house record in 1970. This year the celebrated "marine theater" needed a hit, after reportedly setting an all-time low with last season's mediocre production of "The Music Man."
Happily, a hit is just what they've ended up with. "The Sound of Music" may be tried, but it sure is true. With veteran star Constance Towers in the leading role, the current Jones Beach offering is a winner in all respects.
As any visitor to the marine theater can attest, it is a very unusual showplace.Built over the quiet waters of Zachs Bay, it consists of two stages, connected by portable ramps. The far stage is used mostly for production numbers, while more intimate moments take place in the area closest to the audience -- though even here, it's an "intimacy" conveyed by microphones and loudspeakers, and best viewed through binoculars.
In these wide-open spaces, the most effective shows are the most extroverted shows. "Finian's Rainbow" and "Annie Get Your Gun" work well here, while the brooding of "Showboat" and the balladry of "The Music Man" fail to connect with their faraway spectators. "The Sound of Music" has many serious overtones, with its tale of upright Austrians resisting the temptation to collaborate with German Nazis in 1938. But it contains a lot of fun, too, and a musical score that would pack a wallop under almost any circumstances.
That's why this Rogers and Hammerstein classic still seems so exhilarating, even on a misty Jones Beach evening when the microphone system isn't behaving too well. You may miss a few words or gestures, but the sentiment of "Edelweiss" and the craziness of "The Lonely Goatherd" are not matters of nuance -- they positively leap into the amphitheater, demanding to be enjoyed. The mood becomes effervescent when "Do, Re, Mi" and the title song ring out. And don't forget "My Favorite Things," an ingenious tune that has inspired musicians as varied as Julie Andrews and John Coltrane to some of their best efforts.
Of course, the show is unabashedly schmaltzy, and subtlety is hardly encouraged by the broad performances that are de rigeur at the marine theater. Don't look for delicate details in this production. Rather, look for an all-stops-out celebration of the score, and a free-for-all romp through the eccentric story that swoops from the cloistered orderliness of a convent to the nervous uncertainty of an Austrian home invaded by Nazi thugs. And look for unfailingly high spirits from Miss Towers as the heroine, Earl Wrightson as the bellicose military man whom she tames and marries, and Lois Hunt as his erstwhile lady love.
For bringing the snowy Alps to the salty Atlantic shore, credit goes to director John Fearnley, designer Robert Fletcher, and musical director Frank Wagner One hopes the complicated sound system will calm down and function with more consistency during the season than, it did on opening night; but one is confident the performers will keep the hearty elan that enabled them to galumph right through the rocky technical moments and maintain the mood of the evening at alpine heights. "The Sound of Music" remains a jolly show for young and old, and the Jones Beach Theater is a splendid place to pay it a visit.