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In a way it's like cheating. Whenever Gabriella Dimmick enters, she hoards your eyes. She plays Gretel, youngest of the Von Trapp Family Singers, and always knows where to go (usually arriving first) and what to do. Thing is: Gabriella is six years old and almost reaches the waists not of the leads, but of the other children!

To underscore the plight of the Von Trapps, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II cheat a bit too. They paint Austria as reasonably Edenic before the German Anschluss (political joining) of 1938, when in fact many of its citizens were blatantly anti-semitic. After the "joining" everyone in the musical but the Von Trapps gets body-snatched and wears red bands on stiffened right arms.

The family escapes and vows to "Climb Every Mountain." And we're glad. But what about the people left behind who didn't have the Von Trapp's money or connections - and didn't compromise?

For those unfamiliar with the musical or Julie Andrews' 360 on an alp in the movie, The Sound of Music tells of an ugly duckling. Maria Ranier doesn't fit in, as a postulant at Nonnberg Abbey or as governess of the aristocratic Von Trapps. She has a problem with too many rules, and her spirituality comes out in song. She eventually converts the family - even ship-whistle regulating Captain Von Trapp - and the nuns, who break a vow and sing at the abbey.

In the SDMT production, the "sound" of the title's the key. Everyone's miked, and the volumne's up, which sometimes creates a blare.

But Allison Spratt Pearce (Maria), Randall Dodge (Captain Von Trapp), and Victoria Strong (the Mother Abbess) sing with such command they could flatten the back row of the Birch North Park without amplification.

Pearce, sprightly and surefire, charms throughout. Dodge (who's on a major roll this year, having already excelled in South Pacific and Chicago) does an appropriate thaw as the Captain. And Strong does a, well, strong version of "Climb Every Mountain."

The song has a National Anthem Moment: a way high note looms at the end, and the question's always: can the singer hit it and hold it cleanly?

Strong does the build: "follll-low evvvvv-ree rain-bow...till...you...find" - then up she goes - 'yourrrrrrr dreeeeeeeeeeeem." But here's the kicker. She doesn't just hit the note clean and resonant, she SMILES.

Director/choreographer Todd Nielsen has unsweetened the script, where possible. Don Lemaster's musical direction includes impressive choral effects and the richness of a live, 25-piece orchestra. David McBean (a funny, slightly devious Max), Jill Van Velzer (Elsa Schraeder, dignified in defeat), and the young Von Trapps provide fine support.

The sets look like they've already climbed a mountain or twain, but Matthew Novotny's lighting perks them up.

Birch North Park Theatre, 2891 University Avenue, North Park, playing through May 26.

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