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Head For The Hills 

by Michael Bowen

The Sound of Music movie started being shown annually on network TV back during the Carter administration. In the United States and Canada alone, nearly 500 versions of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical are licensed for production every year. We all have soaring helicopter shots of Julie Andrews twirling atop some Alp spinning in our heads: For her, the hills may be alive, but the rest of us are getting do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-dizzy.

So why on earth unleash another version of The Sound of Music? "Well, of course I've seen the movie a thousand times -- it's my mom's favorite movie," laughs Jim Ballard, the actor who this weekend (Nov. 13-16 at the Opera House) will portray Maria's love interest, Captain Georg von Trapp.

But why another Sound of Music? "Well, it's a story about hope and faith and family, and you can't get sick of that," he surmises.

Yet how can another touring production shed any new light on the story of Maria Rainer (Lindsay K. Northen), the high-spirited novice in a convent who decides to become a governess for the militaristic widower -- the father of all those kids in lederhosen -- then decides to marry him?

"The first thing you're going to notice," explains Ballard, "is that unlike Mary Martin and Julie Andrews, who were blondes, Lindsay is a redhead with freckles, and she's really cute. In real life, she loves strawberry shortcake, and that's exactly what she looks like, too. But after I worked with her awhile, I could also tell that she was very intelligent.

"I'd also say that in our version, Lindsay and I have a chemistry between us onstage that's apparent," says Ballard. "In my first scene with Maria, it's all about business -- I just get in and out, taking care of the set-up with the new governess. But I'm not used to being questioned, so I'm kind of thrown for a loop by her. But I throw in a little sarcasm, just to show that I have a sense of humor, and that he's bemused by what she's doing."

The Christopher Plummer tradition is to play the Captain as aloof and militaristic. Ballard, though, has made some discoveries about his character: "The real von Trapp wasn't really of the aristocracy -- the wife that died, it was all her money. That's how he became rich. He was one of first submarine war captains. In World War I, he made a [decision in the heat of battle] that made him a national hero. In fact, he'd only been a widower for two years: he lost his wife in 1925, and in real life he met and married Maria in '27" (though the play telescopes events, so that the action takes place in 1938).

Ballard himself has a military background: "I'm in the Marines myself, in the reserve," he says. "I've done the training, I've gone through boot camp. And when you've been in the Marines, that military bearing just comes out of you. And I wanted him to have that." (Ballard has played the part before, at a theater in Naples, Fla.) "I think I tried to take that out of him before, and made him too staunch or too rigid or something. The way I played him before, I was too active, I think. So I'm trying to find a more stable center now."

Ballard points to how the military and political dimensions of the story are often excised in network showings of the film: "The movie is more focused on the relationship, because in the movie, Elsa [the Baroness Schraeder, von Trapp's fianc & eacute;e] leaves because she realizes that he has fallen in love with Maria. But in the stage version, it's more political: It's clear that they split up because Elsa is going over to the Nazis, and feels that they can't be resisted, whereas my character is totally against them.

"So our version has much more in the way of political overtones. At one point, I tell [Elsa] what I think [about the Nazis], and she asks, 'Is there no way for you to see it my way?' and I say no, and that's it, she leaves." That's how the door is left open for the storybook, Georg-runs-off-with-Maria-and-the-kids ending.

The final day of this touring show's four-day stop in Spokane, Nov. 16, marks the 44th anniversary of the original production's Broadway opening. In the United States alone, the film version of The Sound of Music has grossed nearly $1 billion.

No wonder movie critic Pauline Kael referred to the 1965 movie as "The Sound of Money." The hills are alive with ka-ching, ka-ching-ching.

Publication date: 11/13/03

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