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Paper Mill Comes Alive With 'The Sound of Music'

Enjoyable revival sets festive tone for the holidays.

Despite its utter lack of thematic connection to the holiday season, The Sound of Music always feels like a good fit when the sleigh bells start to ring.

Paper Mill Playhouse scored a hit with this beloved family musical in 2003, when it closed on Dec. 14. This year, it’s back with full billing as a limited holiday engagement, which will extend to Dec. 30.

James Brennan, who directed the 2003 revival, is back with an all-new cast and a more attractive and three-dimensional set. No need to rank which production was better because what we have, here and now, is a perfectly timed tribute to the magic of live theater and a worthy successor to the legacy of the final triumph authored by Rodgers and Hammerstein.

The cast, too, shines brightly, featuring several faces well-known to New Jersey theater fans, and at least one face familiar to prime-time TV viewers. Broadway veteran Ben Davis wears the uniform of Captain von Trapp, the starchy widowed commander of seven lonely children in pre-World War II Austria.

Elena Shaddow, who has lead-actress credits both here (Carnival) and at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, slips into the modest frocks of Maria, the flighty postulate (nun in training) at a nearby abbey. The Mother Abbess (Suzanne Ishee) loves her spirit, but feels Maria needs to experience more of life and leases her to the von Trapp clan as a governess.

The icy captain, who marches his children and dresses them in uniforms, quickly melts when he sees Maria and the children bond over song. Who wouldn’t with the material they are given, from the title song to classics like “Do-Re-Me” and “My Favorite Things,” sung here first, as it was in the Broadway original, by Maria and the Mother Abbess (Maria and the kids introduce it in the film)?

Maria and the captain fall in love, but von Trapp is engaged to the Countess Schraeder (Donna English, last seen here vamping it up as Velma in “Hairspray!”). Torn by her new love and her commitment to the church, Maria flees back to the abbey, where the Mother Abbess counsels her with the show-stopping “Climb Every Mountain.”

Taking point on comic relief is Edward Hibbert, an 11-year veteran of the TV comedy Frasier, as Max, the captain’s colorful buddy, who recruits the kids for a big talent show.

The gig becomes an opportunity for the family to escape Austria and the Nazis who invaded their country sometime during the intermission. The musical’s book, by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, embellishes the facts on occasion, but it makes it extra special for the audience to know that The Sound of Music is indeed based on the true-life story of the von Trapp family, which fled Austria during the Anschluss.

And who can get enough of stories where Nazis lose to a bunch of cute kids?

Shaddow and Davis are terrific but there’s enough talent onstage demanding your attention that it almost feels like an ensemble cast. The most demands, of course, are made of Shaddow, who has a rich voice and convincingly progresses from an innocent girl to a worldly wife and mother.

The kids, too, accomplish their demanding tasks with professional aplomb. Hunter A. Kovacs, as younger son Kurt, stands out in particular with a stunning solo voice.

Due respect to the Nutcrackers, Grinches and Rockettes competing for your dollar, but if you’re aiming to tickle your holiday fancy, this is the place to start.

The Sound of Music continues through Dec. 30 at the Paper Mill Playhouse, Brookside Drive, Millburn. Tickets are $26 to $96. For information, call 973-376-4343 or visit papermill.org.

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