by Larry Austin
While millions have watched the annual Easter television broadcast of "The Sound of Music," Shannon McNaughton was recently watching it for just her second time.
Ironically, McNaughton plays Maria in this week's St. Stephen's Parish Players production of the popular musical, but had never seen the movie version before she auditioned for a part.
"I found out about the musical, and I just thought why not try out. And then everybody made fun of me for not ever seeing the movie," McNaughton said. "So after I got the part I finally saw the movie."
"I watched it this weekend," she said of the Easter broadcast. "I loved it."
While she knows Maria from "The Sound of Music" is one of the iconic characters in Hollywood history, McNaughton isn't taking the stage this week to play Julie Andrews playing Maria Rainer.
"But I'm putting my own twist on it too, because I feel like I shouldn't be exactly like her. I should be Maria, not Julie Andrews - the character, not the actress," she said.
"I see Maria as being a smiley person, so I decide to smile all the time while I'm up there, and truly feel and be in the character the whole time, and feel how I would feel if I was in that situation entering a family with seven children."
The show, a youth production of the Parish Players, opened Thursday night and continues Friday and Saturday and features approximately 50 child actors ranging in age from 6 to 18. It opens a series of three productions by the Parish Players this month. A children's show, "A Pocket Full of Rhymes," and the adult show, "The Odd Couple," open later this month. Directing a show with 50 children, all between ages 6 and 18 and all unpredictable as weather, is the job of director Maura Rustowicz. Jeanne Suski conducts the pit orchestra.
Maria is a postulant in an abbey in the Austrian Alps who is sent out to become a governess of seven children for the widower and naval hero Capt. Georg von Trapp, played by Dan Olszewski. Maria brings music back into the von Trapp house, helping draw the cold and stern father closer to his children, while at the same time falling in love with him.
Like McNaughton, Olszewski is developing his own character, a Capt. von Trapp distinct from the Christopher Plummer movie version.
"I'm not looking to compare myself to any movie. I'm trying to show the captain's expressions in totally different ways," Olszewski said.
"He's always trying to be the captain of his ship until Maria breaks down the walls," Olszewski said of von Trapp. "At the beginning, he has the feelings, but he always suppresses them. So, if he has any emotion, he'll try to suppress it instantly. Stuff gets to him, but he doesn't let it show."
Though she is only 17, going on 18, McNaughton is mature for her age in personality and vocal skills, while closer in age to the real-life Maria Rainer, on whom the story is based, than both Julia Andrews, who was 30-ish when she performed in the movie version of the story, and Mary Martin, who was in her 40s in the original Broadway production.
The show is a youth production, but all the popular songs audiences expect in "The Sound of Music" are included. The production is especially noteworthy for performances by McNaughton and Maggi Chauby (Mother Abbess) of "Climb Ev'ry Mountain," and "(How Do You Solve a Problem Like) Maria" by Chauby, Jenna Stufkosky, Carly Kruszona and Natalie Baldassarre.
McNaughton is a senior at Grand Island High School. Earlier this year, she was Cosette in the Grand Island High School Music Department's laudable production of "Les Misérables." Before that she had a chance to show off her dancing talents as Miss Jones in "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying" her junior year and in "Thoroughly Modern Millie" her sophomore year. This is her first Parish Players show.
Olszewski, 18, attends Erie Community College and has performed with the Parish Players for a decade, beginning as the Three of Hearts in "Alice in Wonderland." He was Bud Frump in the Grand Island High School musical comedy production of "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying" in his senior year. This is his first romantic leading role.
"I like it. It's a pleasant change from what I usually do," Olszewski said, who has been more of a character actor, like his father, Steve, who will play Oscar Madison in the Parish Players run of "The Odd Couple" later this month.
"It's good to have an opportunity to flex my acting muscles," Olszewski said. Being a romantic lead has its advantages too. Olszewski said McNaughton is "an excellent actress, a great singer, and a lot of fun. And she's attractive too, so, bonus."
In contrast to a typical high school show, where all the performers are closer in age, "The Sound of Music" benefits from having a range of age groups and experience levels on the stage at the same time. ("Gretl's adorable," Olszewski said of the youngest von Trapp, Bethany Kulikowski, who shares the stage with her older sister Grace, who plays Elsa, the captain's fiancée and competitor for his affections with Maria.)
"I've never worked with little kids before, and that was exciting to do because then you can have actors the actual ages of the characters, and that's different from the high school musical," McNaughton said.
Putting on a show is not all raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens. It involves a tremendous effort from children on stage and in the pit orchestra, as well as adults behind the scenes with the Parish Players, who annually build their own stage in the St. Stephen School cafeteria to put on a month of theater.
"We've been working really, really hard for two months," McNaughton said. "You wouldn't think it's really a professional show if you hear it's in a cafeteria, but the way that they do it, it's definitely going to be great."