The Hills Are Alive!
nytheatre.com review by Brian Gillespie
August 12, 2012
The classic Rogers and Hammerstein musical, The Sound of Music ends with the Von Trapp family trekking across the Alps and escaping Nazi-annexed Austria to the safety and freedom of neutral Switzerland. The movie version gives us a panoramic helicopter shot of the family happily marching along a scenic mountain path to the swelling strains of “Climb Every Mountain.” The Hills Are Alive!, the delightful new musical dark comedy from Melodian Theatre poses the question, “What happened next?”
The show begins with the ‘van Klapp’ family (the Captain, his seven children, and new wife Mathilde) bidding farewell to Austria and settling in for their first night in the Alps. They don’t have much in the way of supplies but they have a song in their hearts and that seems to have served them well so far. But when the Captain disappears that first evening (presumably captured by pursuing Nazis), and leaves Mathilde and the children to fend for themselves, they soon learn that choral family musical numbers really don’t solve many of the practical problems of food, shelter and navigation in the mountains.
Parody is a tricky art to pull off and The Hills Are Alive! deftly and hilariously succeeds at it. Much of the credit for that success must go to Frankie Johnson (wearing multiple creative hats as lyricist, book writer, director) and her partner Eric Thomas Johnson (composer and musical director.) Together they’ve created songs that lovingly echo the style of the Rogers & Hammerstein originals at which they are poking fun.
The story moves along briskly and ridiculously as one by one, members of the family fall victim to such hazards as bear attacks, falls, abductions and poisonings. The book also sends up familiar musical theatre conventions quite effectively; in order to decide who should lead the group after their father and mother have disappeared, brother Felix (Christopher Tiernan) and oldest sister Lotte (Maggie Wetzel) engage in a ‘dance battle.’ And later in the play, second youngest Magda (Daniele Hager) is lead to safety in a ‘dream ballet’ ala Oklahoma! with a hill that she had befriended. (indeed, this hill was alive!)
The cast of nine were uniformly excellent and each had several moments to shine. Standouts for me included Becky Whitcomb as the somewhat dense youngest brother, Knut; the aforementioned Christopher Tiernan as the prissy yet lecherous oldest brother Felix and Frankie Johnson (yes, she acted in it too) as the rascally youngest sister, Gerty.
The simple set, consisting of multiple ladders dressed as mountains and hills that could be climbed, transformed into trees, or moved to show a different location, provided an effective and imaginative playing space that the actors and director made good use of. And Jennifer Ackland’s costumes colorfully evoke Austrian alpine wear.
This show is well crafted, well executed and very funny. You don’t need to know The Sound of Music well to get it or enjoy it. However if you are a fan, this show is a special treat.