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‘Sound of Music’ Characters Get Backstories in Island City Premiere

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Jordan Armstrong and Sahid Pabon star in “The Radicalization of Rolfe” at Island City Stage. Credit: George Wentzler.

You can admit it. After either reading Gregory Maguire’s book “Wicked” or seeing the big Broadway adaptation, you never watched “The Wizard of Oz” the same way. In Maguire’s telling, the mean old Wicked Witch of the West was a misunderstood victim of her circumstances.

Now, playwright Andrew Bergh has lent the same treatment to the beloved Rodgers and Hammerstein musical “The Sound of Music” in the world premiere production of “The Radicalization of Rolfe” at Island City Stage in Wilton Manors.

In his play, Bergh imagines the upstairs/downstairs intrigue at the von Trapp villa that wasn’t a part of the well-known story based on Maria von Trapp’s memoir.

Eldest daughter Liesl’s handsome young beau, Rolfe Gruber (Jordan Armstrong), a telegraph delivery boy, is being recruited by the scheming local Nazi party leader, Herr Zeller (Michael Kerr), to provide information about the loyalties of World War II naval hero Captain Georg von Trapp.

Rolfe is not the only pawn in Zeller’s plot. The von Trapp’s “loyal” if wily butler Franz (Laurence Buzzeo) is also providing information and working to turn the housekeeper Frau Schmidt (Carol Caselle). Franz’s mission is to sabotage the budding romance between the Captain and his young governess.

The plot takes an unexpected and sexy twist when the audience discovers Rolfe in the arms of Johan Schmidt (Sahid Pabon), a leftist university student who spends his afternoons in the athletic club and sipping beers with other men after his “workouts.”

Like most teens, Rolfe is certainly conflicted. He’s 17-going-on-18, a man who yearns for a career, family and glory. He’s also a horny kid whose hormones get the best of him, sending back to apartment of his friend for acts of deviancy. He is forced to make some hard decisions that will forever change his life and the lives of his loved ones. Armstrong’s Rolfe is compelling, a naïve young man desperately seeking the approval of the adults around him. Pabon, as Johan, is charismatic and full of life, a carefree spirit who seems to understand the consequences of his choices.

At times Buzzeo and Caselle evoke those intimate and familiar scenes in “Downton Abbey” when Carson and Mrs. Hughes must deal with the continual turmoil of the family upstairs. Unfortunately, their storyline at times overshadows that of Rolfe and his struggles.

Thankfully, director Andy Rogow keeps the pace moving in the two-hour, two act play, especially in those moments where Bergh merely scratches at the surface of the most emotional developments. A particularly powerful exchange occurs between Rolfe and Johan, arguing over whether a homosexual can be happy and lead a dignified existence, the type of conversation many of the older men in the audience have surely engaged in during less open times.

Ardean Landhuis’ minimalist set, a riser with a backdrop of backlit mountains and flanked by imposing Nazi propaganda posters, provides a flexible backdrop for the various locations in and around Salzburg. The cheery polka rhythms of brass bands, selected by sound designer David Hart, effectively belie the tensions brewing throughout the play.

Island City Stage, 2304 N. Dixie Hwy. in Wilton Manors, presents the world premiere production of Andrew Bergh’s “The Radicalization of Rolfe” through April 29. Tickets are $35 at IslandCityStage.org.


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