Richard Hamburger

The Hills Are Still Alive, Just Look Past the Strings

By Neil Genzlinger / The New York Times

Perhaps you’ve suffered through the clip-clop-clunk of a mediocre marionette performance, one in which there is no effort to invest the wooden stars with flexibility or personality. At the remarkable “Sound of Music” created by the Salzburg Marionette Theater, you’ll know you’re seeing an entirely different level of artistry as soon as the curtain goes up. It’s the nun down on her hands and knees scrubbing the floor, with a very convincing floor-scrubbing motion, who tips you off.

The production, a delightful surprise from start to finish, features, on tape, the voices of experienced New York actors like Martin Vidnovic (Captain von Trapp) and Christiane Noll (Maria), nicely delivering the familiar songs and the dialogue. (The show is abridged and altered, but not to damaging effect.) Somehow having the human element removed from the stage makes you all the more conscious of what a gift the Rodgers and Hammerstein songs are. But this isn’t just a listening exercise; the skilled puppeteers, on sets by Chris Barreca, are creating a mesmerizing spectacle.

The show, which was seen for review last week at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, comes to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for a too-brief stay beginning tonight, on its way to being installed permanently at the company’s theater in Austria. That, of course, is where the story takes place, and the production will no doubt have a special resonance there.

But it has plenty on this side of the Atlantic. The New Jersey audience at first was reticent, knowing how ridiculous it would be to applaud puppets after a musical number. But the amusing vertical-and-horizontal choreography of “Do-Re-Mi” — puppets aren’t limited by gravity — broke down all resistance; from then on there was clapping aplenty.

Richard Hamburger, the director, does a fine job of making sure this production never turns static the way so much marionette theater does. One startling effect: Just when your eyes have become accustomed to the puppet-size scale, he has a live human appear as the Mother Abbess. She looks like a benevolent giant.

Perhaps you’re wondering about “The Lonely Goatherd.” A marionette scene by marionettes? Wait for it, as they say. It’s not where you expect it, but it’s there, just another of this show’s inventive touches.

© Richard Hamburger, Theater Director      Site design and maintenance by Amy Lacy.