Charlotte Wakefield and Michael Xavier face the thrilling, if slightly daunting, task this summer of stepping into Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer’s shoes to play one of the most loved romantic pairings in musical theatre history. But, rather than trying to live up to any preconceived ideas, they have instead – quite literally at one point – thrown those iconic shoes off and found new, youthful life in the couple.
The result is a fresh and exuberant take on the classic show, performed in a setting that you could well imagine Rodgers and Hammerstein dreaming of when they wrote the musical more than 50 years ago. When Maria (Wakefield) runs down through the audience singing the title song with the fittingly grassy slopes – to call them ‘hills’ would be a slight exaggeration – of Regent’s Park Open Air theatre around her, the heady mix of the falling light and the soaring live orchestra transport you to the glorious mountains of Austria with little need for imagination.
The rain held off from last night’s press performance, but even if it had poured you’d likely receive your daily dose of Vitamin D and more from Wakefield’s sunny Maria. Bubbling with energy, this is a Maria who never walks when she can run, who literally bowls into people with excitement and who is genuinely funny. Talking a mile a minute, Wakefield plays her as a hot-headed woman on the brink of discovering a world she never knew existed and, while her clothes may be the brilliantly unself-conscious retro delights we have come to expect from the nun who fashions a wardrobe from a pair of curtains, there is nothing twee about this Maria.
In the capable hands of director Rachel Kavanaugh, the burgeoning relationship between her and the uptight Captain von Trapp unfolds with palpable chemistry and, perhaps in part due to their relatively small age gap, always feels realistic. While Xavier is as repressed and straight-backed as any respectable Captain should be, the actor also reveals a fragile core to the character only thinly veiled by his barked orders and surly exterior, finding humour in the character’s awkwardness with a witty deadpan delivery that has lines such as the emotionally void “It’s fun being with you” met with raucous laughter from the audience.
Strong support and scene-stealing sweetness comes from the von Trapp children who wow with age-defying, confident performances and expert delivery of infectiously fun choreography that brings the well-known songs to life. 12-year-old Imogen Gurney (one of three actresses who will rotate the role) takes inspiration from West End favourite Matilda to play the Captain’s crucially brutally honest daughter Brigitta with a twinkling of mischief and older-than-her age wisdom in her eye, while Faye Brookes is perfectly cast as the pretty Liesl whose teenage romance takes a dramatic turn against the changing political landscape.
While Kavanaugh’s classically elegant production, set off by Peter McKintosh’s sumptuous design, could never be described as a dramatically different take on the production, her great success comes from her detailed direction and minimalist approach that draws out every last element of drama from the tale. The stakes have never seemed higher and, under a canopy of stars and leafy branches, the songs never so gloriously performed.