When you know the notes to sing: Remixing "The Sound of Music" as "Fraulein Maria"
This weekend, I may stop by the Paramount Center's Bright Family Screening Room in Boston to see a free screening of "The Sound of Music." By my calculation, I've seen the film 20 times, as a child and again as the parent of a child. It showed up in my life around the same time as other movie musicals such as "Peter Pan" and "Cinderella" that were made in the 1960s and were on TV each year when I was a kid. That was before DVDs and Netflix (and VHS), so the annual showing was a fairly exciting family event. It was also before replay buttons on remote controls, and I feel sure I watched TV with far more focus and clarity than I do these days when I'm likely to also be tweeting or texting at the same time.
In other words, my little mind was taking in far more information with fewer distractions, and I memorized those musicals in the same way I learned to say prayers at Mass: It was all rote, but the practice with musicals was far more challenging given that they came on once a year and Mass was once (or more) a week.
In any case, it was a testament to just how deeply "The Sound of Music" was embedded in my long-term memory when I recently attended Doug Elkins & Friends' production of "Fraulein Maria" running through Oct. 3 at the Paramount Center in Boston.
Elkins is an award-winning choreographer whose creds come from the break dancing world. For "Fraulein Maria," he combines modern dance and ballet with his street moves and the music of Rodgers and Hammerstein's soundtrack featuring a full-throated Julie Andrews. Which means that when Elkins started popping and botting and ticking as the Mother Abbess in "Climb Ev'ry Mountain," he augmented the song from an operatic pep talk about dreams to a display of just how much tutting a righteous B-Boy can achieve within about a four-foot halo of spotlight. He wore a black and white hoodie - a kind of wimple for the hood couture - and embedded the symbols of the tune (his hands do an itsy-bitsy spider-like move when the refrain is sung) and of contemporary hand jive such as basketball shots and, for lack of a better term, the pinkie-and-thumb-connecting-to-the-mouth-and-ear "call me" action. His moves and the choreography throughout the show were utterly new to me and yet they made perfect satirical sense given my familiarity with the movie.
Elkins is a virtuoso. And he has surrounded himself with a troupe of virtuosic dancers who suggest what it must have been like in, say, Shakespeare's time or in the early years of traveling circuses when you had to be a polymath of artistic ability to be part of the company. Many of the Elkins dancers have had conservatory training. But they are also gymnasts, martial artists, trapezists, break dancers, actors and comedians. Their previous tenures are as varied as the Flying Karamazov Brothers, Bill T. Jones, the Metropolitan Opera and "trained Chris Brown." So there was 20-year-old Gui Greene defying gravity with his airborne power moves performing an "I Am Sixteen (Going on Seventeen)" pas de deux with David Parker, who was swan-like as a corporeal, middle-aged, cross-dressing Liesl. And there's Deborah Lohse who strutted on her tiptoes to connote the high heels her stridently bitchy Baroness might wear but suggesting in elegant slapstick the way Carol Burnett might have played the role had she been cast in the movie instead of Eleanor Parker. I wasn't exactly surprised even as I still gasped during the sentimental duet "Something Good" when Jeffrey Kazin, as Von Trapp, did a full-out run at Meghan Merrill, as Maria, and leapt into her arms for a traditional, though role-reversed, ballet catch.
It strikes me that Elkins takes his street aesthetic to the level of "cultural remix," which his company represents: a diverse group of dancers in terms of race, age and gender roles (plus five Emerson College students who join the troupe for one number). But he also engages in a form of remix in his use of varied dance genres that equally celebrate ensemble and individual talent. From this complicated pastiche emerges an appreciation of the American musical as a form so pliable it breaks down the high-low art rules - ballet meets graffiti dance - and becomes a trope about the elasticity not only of the human body but of a work of art. In other words, "Hamlet" is still becoming "Hamlet." "The Great Gatsby" is still becoming "The Great Gatsby." And thanks to Elkins, "The Sound of Music" is still becoming "The Sound of Music."
And I, for one, can't wait to see the movie for the 21st time.
Photos: Doug Elkins as Mother Abbess by Yi-Chun Wu; troupe photo and Robert Parker as Liesl by Christopher Duggan.