Any actress playing the role of Maria Rainer in “The Sound of Music” has quite a list of characteristics to fill: she must posses a kind, gentle, energetic stage presence, a certain delicacy — but not too much — and a naiveté she can turn on and off at will.
She must also be able to perform as a nun in training, a nanny, a stepmother and an all-round singing sensation.
For the newest local production of “The Sound of Music,” it was 27-year-old Meghan Herder who fit the bill.
“Meghan is very strong-voiced to begin with, but she had this fragility — and I don’t mean that in a negative way — and this vulnerability and sort of wide-eyed innocence when she did her audition on stage, and that translated into a Maria for us. She didn’t knock us out of the ballpark;
it was just a very unassuming approach to her audition that moved us in her direction,” said director Tolson Barrington.
Herder, a native of St. John’s, is a classically trained opera singer with university degrees in voice performance and vocal pedagogy. This isn’t her first time performing in “The Sound of Music,” having played the role of the eldest Von Trapp child, Liesl, in a local production 10 years ago, alongside Ronalda Hutton MacDonald’s portrayal of Maria.
When the open casting call was announced for the newest version of the musical, Herder said she couldn’t resist.
“It’s a bit of a special show for me,” she explained. “I knew it was the role I wanted, and I knew I would only get involved if that was the outcome.”
There were actually seven potential Marias out of the dozens who auditioned, Barrington said, and a handful of them, when they didn’t get the part, took other roles in the production.
Along with a live orchestra of close to 30 musicians, there’s a complete cast of 53 actors in the production, ranging in age from eight years old to late 70s.
The show is being presented by the Quidi Vidi Rennies River Foundation and the Stokers Group of the St. John’s Rotary, in connection with the St. John’s Arts and Culture Centre, as its biannual musical production. Barrington, former drama teacher at Prince of Wales Collegiate and a member of the local theatre community for about 30 years, has been involved in the productions for the past five years, first as an actor, then directing the past three.
“The Sound of Music” is one of his favourite musicals, he said.
“It’s a story in which good overcomes evil in the end, and it’s got historical perspective. Being able to work with a musical in that vein is always interesting,” he said.
“The biggest thing for me is that it includes a cross-section of ages and talent. We have people on stage who are professional actors, and then we have people who are acting for the first time, and you have people who got involved in these community theatre projects for numerous years, like myself. It’s a really nice coming together, a community initiative that cuts across al kinds of generations and professional capabilities.”
The story is set in Austria during the Second World War. Maria, who is studying to become a nun, is sent from the convent to be a nanny for the seven musical Von Trapp children, whose father is a widowed naval captain, and she teaches them to sing.
After first being mean to Maria, the children come to love her, and so does their father — he ends his engagement to a baroness and marries her instead. At the end of the story, when the Nazis take power of Austria, the family flees for Switzerland.
The musical version was made into a film in 1965, starring Christopher Plummer as Captain Von Trapp and Julie Andrews as Maria.
Bruce Brenton plays Captain Von Trapp in the local production.
When she’s performing, Herder said she must make an effort to put images of Hutton’s and Andrews’ versions of the role out of her head.
“I see images of Julie Andrews as Maria, and I hear Ronalda,” Herder said. “I have to push those sounds and images away, otherwise I’ll be trapped from making my own Maria. They’re always there, I can’t ignore it, but I try to push them a little further back so I can make her my own.”
The seven young actors playing the Von Trapp children — Sophia Stylianides, Emma MacDonald, Lauren Hayward, Kevin Ellsworth, Jade Ryan, Keith Roberts and Sarah Small — were chosen from more than 100 children who auditioned.
“I think it’s every person’s dream, from the age of 19 on down, to play one of the Von Trapp kids,” Barrington said. “We could have cast this thing three times over.”
While there are challenges involved in working with such a huge and varied cast, directing the children isn’t one of them, according to Barrington.
“It amazes me that as the years go on, kids get more and more comfortable with who they are at an earlier age. You don’t have to find that acting bone in them; they almost come hard-wired, ready to perform on the stage. They have a lot more opportunities than kids had 30 years ago, so they’re much more prepared and open and whatnot. That makes your job a lot easier, because you’re not having to worry about getting them to speak up and to perform on the stage in terms of their confidence.
“What you’ve got to do is teach them to find that character, and you’ve got to draw that character from inside (of them) instead of trying to put it on like a mask and overacting. I just love working with children.”
Those who take in “The Sound of Music” can expect to see good professional and amateur acting, beautiful sets, and all the Rodgers and Hammerstein songs that have become standards, including “Edelweiss,” “Do-Re-Mi,” and “My Favourite Things,” Barrington said.
“I think people are going to go out of the theatre humming those songs.”
Under the choral direction of Susan Quinn, orchestral direction of Grant Etchegary and with choreography by Pamela Pittman-Rogers, “The Sound of Music” runs at the St. John’s Arts and Culture Centre Nov. 9-13. Tickets are $26.50 for regular admission and $22.50 for students and seniors, and are available at the Arts and Culture Centre box office or by calling 729-3900.