Theater archives

The Thrills Are Alive


Remember the opening shot of The Sound of Music? The camera flies over the Alps, gradually zooming down until the tiny figure in the meadow turns out to be Julie Andrews, lungs bursting with song. Now cut from 1965 to December 2006 and Doug Elkins’s Fraulein Maria. Two well-loved downtown dancers, Arthur Aviles and Jennifer Nugent, make their way through the crowd at Joe’s Pub toward the small stage. Wearing blue dresses and white aprons, they’re each carrying two little sparkly fir trees. Andrews, her voice caroling from speakers, has become very present and three-dimensional (and received a gender split), but the trees remain as small as the distant ones in the film.

New Yorkers are going to be very happy when Fraulein Maria, polished up and with additional recruits, returns to Joe’s Pub on Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday (and again on January 12). A couple of years ago, when Elkins was coping with the breakup of his marriage and the dissolution of his dance company, he popped in a DVD and watched The Sound of Music with his son Liam. “One of his favorites was the puppet number for ‘Lonely Goatherd,'” he says, “and all of a sudden I had this epiphany.” That scene in the Rodgers and Hammerstein hit had been the first piece of theater he’d been attracted to as a little boy (he and his brother went home from the show and struggled to make their own puppets out of milk cartons).

Musicals create their own reality (overnight, Maria can whip up clothes for all the von Trapp kids out of curtains?). The jokes in Fraulein Maria, Elkins says, come from “loving the conventions of musical theater, and also not.” Uproarious working sessions with colleagues like David Parker and Keely Garfield were, he says, “like getting in a room with other jazz musicians. . . . We’d watch a scene and use the memory of it as a basis.” He likens the process to creating those cabinets of curiosities popular in the 19th century. Embedded in this affectionately outrageous deconstruction of an icon are fragments gathered during his voyages through hip-hop and postmodern dance, his mentors’ advice, and trail markers pointing to past and present styles. Elkins would like to see Yvonne Rainer in the Christopher Plummer part; Willi Ninja, master of voguing and a beloved friend, was still expecting to be in Fraulein Maria the day before he died.

“Doing the piece at Joe’s Pub,” says Elkins, “is almost like pulling the furniture out and acting it out in front of the television.” Kids dig the show, he says, and adults “get the other layers of references. It works for both.” Season’s greetings!