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By ART CHANCE
SENIOR THEATER CRITIC
In the mid-‘60s I had finally been able to join the American consumer society.
We subdivided the old cotton fields and made a little money off selling land and houses, and I had the opportunity to engage in some competitive endeavors. I won some competitions that took me from the dirt roads of rural Georgia to the interstates and high rises of Atlanta and big Northern cities. I got to see some first-run movies in really fancy theaters; if you were a country boy from rural Georgia, the Fox Theater in downtown Atlanta was SOMETHING.
Over a couple of years on trips there I saw “My Fair Lady” and “The Sound of Music” in the fancy theaters; it made an impression.
In my world, music and plays were an essential part of life; there was a piano in my living room, my grandmother played the piano for church services, I sang in the church choir and I played in the high school band. It was expected that I would perform in the church Christmas play.
Later on, I sang and played in rock and roll bands, much to my grandmother’s chagrin. Although I auditioned for a part in my high school drama class’s production of “South Pacific” and didn’t get a part, I’m one of only a couple of members of my class that ever got paid for making music. I did it with rock and roll.
I like Broadway, and I really like musicals. My graduation gift to my daughter was taking her to New York to do the Broadway tour, and especially to see “Phantom of the Opera,” with which she was fascinated. I was behind the times and thought you still dressed up to go to Broadway plays. My daughter and her friend were in cocktail dresses and was sporting a tux as we arrived at the Majestic Theatre to see “Phantom of the Opera.” Imagine what the theater staff thought of me with two pretty teenage girls accompanying me. We’ve come to live in a very sick world.
So, return with me now to those thrilling days of yester-year. From the late 1940s into the 1960s, Rodgers and Hammerstein portrayed a vibrant, self-confident America and Western Civilization.
Who over about 40 doesn’t know the words from some Rodgers and Hammerstein song? Who doesn’t have “Some Enchanted Evening” imprinted in their soul? Or doesn’t hear the winds over the plains and stand for a rousing chorus of “Oklahoma?”
I’m confident that I know every word of “Do-Re-Me” and “Climb Every Mountain.” It was who we were in those days. “Sound of Music” was the last Rodgers and Hammerstein play and movie. Come to think of it, maybe 1965 was the last year of a civilized America. It certainly was near the last year of civilized politics, arts, and letters.
After that, colleges turned sharply left. It was a lot easier to sympathize with civil rights marchers in Selma or at the Lincoln Memorial than to sympathize with the rioters in Watts. One percent for arts and the National Endowment quickly turned art and much of theater into something only government would buy. Theater had to be dark and “edgy.”
I went to a 2019 production of “The Sound of Music” to do a reprise of the first thing Suzanne Downing and I ever worked together on: theater reviews.
She was the editor and I was the theater critic for the Juneau Empire for a couple of seasons back in the 1990s. Perseverance Theatre didn’t love me. Juneau’s Perseverance Theatre is the very embodiment of edgy and they could find something dark in any character.
If Perseverance did “The Sound of Music,” Maria would be a lesbian who would have taken Elsa Schraeder as her lover, Captain von Trapp would have been a British intelligence asset trying to pry the Germans and the Soviets away from their alliance in the von Ribbentrop Pact. After Maria and Elsa escaped together to Switzerland, the Nazis would have executed Captain von Trapp, and the children would have taken to the woods as Soviet-supplied guerrillas.
I should see if I can get an NEA grant to write a play. I can think like a lefty.
First the bad, since I have to live up to my reputation: Atwood Concert Hall is still a barn. I’ve played in National Guard Armories that had better acoustics, and we’ve spent fortunes on it. I don’t know who you have to know to get a seat that isn’t behind a post or which doesn’t have an air vent blasting cold air at you. I spent tonight’s performance with my nose running and eyes watering from the blast of cold air and my wife and I were cuddled under our coats.
That said, the hall was the only thing that was bad.
This was probably the best, most professionally performed and staged performance I’ve ever seen in Alaska. The company avoided the Atwood’s acoustics by bringing their own sound system. I don’t know what it was like in the rest of the hall but I was down front in the Orchestra Section and there was a very nice blend of the natural voices of the cast with the microphoned sound through the sound system. This gave a special component to the sound that is usually missing at Atwood; you could actually tell easily who was singing and where on stage they were.
The sets were the sort of minimalist staging that you expect from a travelling troupe, but they were quite good and the crew did a good job of changing sets unobtrusively. I haven’t paid much attention to big time theater since the Andrew Lloyd Weber days, but in those days the cast would have been about a second or third cast in a hit Broadway Play.
Michael Scott Harris as Captain von Trapp maybe wasn’t Michael Crawford as The Phantom, but he was really good and might well have made the second or third cast. Anna Mitzer made a great Maria; the role will always be Julie Andrews’ but Mitzer has a beautiful voice and a graceful manner. Fiona Flyte’s performance as the Mother Abbess in “Climb Every Mountain” was nothing short of superb, if almost deafening; she has a voice!
And finally there were the kids, and I’m not noted as a kid-friendly guy; I like them best about medium well. The von Trapp kids were simply superb and utterly charming; most of them are local talent, so we’re producing some good young talent here in Alaska.
So, if you’re reading this, you probably missed the show unless you decide to go tomorrow (Sunday) night. It’s worth the trip even with the Fur Rondy traffic. Takes you back to another era. I don’t know how well younger people even relate to it, but once upon a time, there really were good people and really bad people, and truth was truth, not just what you felt was truth.
Art Chance is a retired Director of Labor Relations for the State of Alaska, formerly of Juneau and now living in Anchorage. He is the author of the book, “Red on Blue, Establishing a Republican Governance,” available at Amazon. He writes about labor politics and also is the Must Read Alaska theater critic.