How do you solve a problem like filling the seats of a brand-new, $30 million performance venue in a place most art snobs charitably call the middle of nowhere? Hire the Von Trapp Children, the latest incarnation of the beloved Austrian singing family which, more than half a century after the death of its patriarch, still hasn’t said so long, farewell to show biz.
Paul Lormand, director of Western Carolina University’s Fine and Performing Arts Center (FAPAC), has crafted an inaugural-season schedule calculated not to risk offense: While FAPAC’s spotless Web site declares its mission is “to inspire, engage and excite” and to cultivate appreciation for diverse cultures, the stage is being broken in by a magician, a contemporary Christian songster’s salute to Billy Joel and Elton John, and the Von Trapp Children.
“When you have an inaugural season, you have to produce a very safe, very traditional program,” says Lormand, who has supervised the openings of three performing-arts facilities. “The objective is to sell the habit of theater-going. People around here go to church, so that’s a good habit, but they’re not used to going to the theater.”
Since only 30,000 people live in rural Jackson County, Lormand chose this year’s shows to appeal to a more promising demographic: Western Carolina University students’ families, who just might be persuaded to combine checking up on Junior with a Riders in the Sky concert.
“I have to keep in mind their profile,” says Lormand, who determined his target audience was “98 percent Caucasian” and born between 1935 and 1965 – a group also known as diehard The Sound of Music fans.
“I checked the Von Trapp Children out, and it was just A-plus across the board,” he goes on. “They were affordable, they were available.”
And, Lormand might have added, constitutionally incapable of singing an atonal note. Sofia, 17, Melanie, 15, Amanda, 14, and Justin, 11, all raised on a small ranch north of Kalispell, Mont., limit their repertoire to the sweet. Their latest album features renditions of “If I Had a Hammer” and “Grandfather Clock.” While critics haven’t sung the group’s praises from a mountaintop, even disappointed reviewers have tempered their assessments with the sort of kindness anyone with a genetic link to “My Favorite Things” engenders: “Amanda and Melanie made some nice harmonies and sang mainly in tune, but let’s leave it at that,” a Boston Herald reviewer wrote after the Children’s 2005 Christmas concert.
But bad reviews may bring good luck in Von Trapp land: The Sound of Music was almost universally panned. New York Times reviewer Bosley Crowther didn’t stint on the adjectives, labeling various aspects of the production “painfully mawkish,” “conventionally histrionic,” “highly enameled,” “forgettable.”
The film went on to win five Oscars.
The Von Trapp Children’s grandfather, Werner, was reborn in the 1965 musical sensation as Kurt, the mischievous middle child of the all-blond brood. Werner Von Trapp toured the U.S. with his singing siblings for decades after World War II, their exhausting schedule dictated by stepmother Maria. The newest generation of Von Trapps got its start singing at Werner’s 50th-anniversary party, a private performance followed by a public concert in North Carolina that led to their casting in a North Carolina Theater production of The Sound of Music. The road led from Raleigh to Australia, Europe and Japan.
“It all started in North Carolina,” notes Barney Kilpatrick, the Von Trapps’ manager.
According to Kilpatrick, the kids haven’t been back since. But they’re in talks with the Hallmark Channel to film a Christmas movie in the Chapel Hill area this summer.
The Von Trapps themselves weren’t available to comment on this or anything else; they’ve spent the last few weeks asea, enjoying a Caribbean cruise. But Lormand says he’s heard they were looking forward to their Cullowhee visit: Sofia, a high-school senior, is reportedly considering attending WCU.
The Von Trapps’ appearance has not yet sold out, although two shows this season reached that mark – selections from The Nutcracker performed by the Atlanta Ballet, and a 1940s musical revue – and one show fell just 20 tickets short. A $100 subscription series to all eight shows has been very successful, with subscribers accounting for 40 percent of the audience.
Lormand says the response has been enthusiastic enough to merit scheduling a summer series, something he hasn’t attempted at other venues. The three shows will include the usual mix of music, movement and spoken performance by which Lormand swears.
“It’s the Wal-Mart approach,” he offers. “If you enjoy dance, we have it here. If you enjoy comedy, we have it here. We’re looking to become like Wal-Mart, a department store for the performing arts.”
And, also like Wal-Mart, Lormand is growth-oriented. He’d like to soon bring in the Broadway shows for which his audience is clamoring: Cats at The Catamount has a nice ring to it, he thinks. And he has at least one star in mind for a concert performance.
“When I was managing director of a repertory theater in Oklahoma, I worked with a lady named Carrie Underwood,” he reveals, referring to the reigning American Idol. “In all due respect, without the exposure we gave her, she never would have gotten American Idol.
“If she came here, ma’am, it would be great,” he adds. “I would just die.”
In the meantime, Lormand is scheduling next season, which he says will be slightly more adventurous. He’s planning to put Porgy and Bess in the lineup, a somewhat daring addition in a town where the movie theater sticks to action-adventure flicks, he says.
“I’d like to see Brokeback Mountain, but you think it’s ever going to come to Sylva? Million Dollar Baby never played here. That’s my audience,” Lormand laments.
“But I think I can find an audience,” he adds, bucking up slightly. “It’s a risk, bringing an opera. I don’t think I could have sold it the first season. We’re ready to push the envelope.”
[Contributing writer Hanna Miller lives in Asheville.]
Western Carolina University presents The Von Trapp Children at the Fine and Performing Arts Center at 3 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 12. Admission is $20/adults, $17/seniors and WCU employees, $9/children and $5/WCU students. Call 227-2479 for more information.