NEW YORK (AP) — A new version of "The Sound of Music" is hitting the road and it's being led by a fresh-faced beauty from Vermont who really does believe "the hills are alive."
Kerstin Anderson, 20, has taken off her upcoming semester at Pace University to play Maria in what promises to be a fresh, invigorating version of the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical.
"I love the mountains. I love nature. So I think what I brought into the room was that mountain girl," said Anderson. "What they told me they were looking for was a tomboy, a country girl. I'm sort of like that."
Tony Award-winner Jack O'Brien, who has helmed such winning Broadway productions as "The Coast of Utopia" and "Hairspray," is directing the show, which also stars Tony-winner Ben Davis as Capt. Georg von Trapp and Ashley Brown as The Mother Abbess.
The tour officially launches Sept. 20 at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles. It then goes to Texas, North Carolina, Maryland, Tennessee, Florida, Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan, Georgia, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, South Carolina, Missouri, Michigan and Colorado.
The musical debuted on Broadway in 1959 starring Mary Martin (at the advanced age for a baby sitter of 46). The 1965 film starring Julie Andrews won the best picture Academy Award. It has the timeless tunes "My Favorite Things," ''Do-Re-Mi," ''Sixteen Going on Seventeen," ''The Sound of Music" and "Climb Ev'ry Mountain."
O'Brien hopes to strip the show back to its essence, upping the sexiness quotient, making it more real and vital, setting it closer to World War II and losing the kitsch. One big challenge was casting Maria, the young novice nun who falls in love with a widower and his seven children.
"This isn't a star part. This is a star-making part," said O'Brien. "I kept thinking, 'Wouldn't it be fun if we could uncork that feeling? So the audience doesn't know this girl and invests in her journey through the show.'"
Anderson, a self-described "goofball" from Burlington, Vermont, who was "raised on a two-DVD set of 'The Sound of Music,'" won the part after an extensive search for a young woman.
"They kept bringing me, one after another, lovely, enchanting, beautifully draped ingenues," O'Brien said. "And one day Kerstin walked into the room. She looked like somebody who'd played field hockey. I mean, she was like a jock and charming and fresh. And the world's best baby sitter, which I think Maria is supposed to be."
One of O'Brien's other bold casting decisions was adding 33-year-old bombshell Brown as The Mother Abbess. Brown originated the title role in Broadway's "Mary Poppins" and also played Belle in "Beauty and the Beast."
Eagle-eyed viewers of the live version broadcast of "The Sound of Music" on NBC in 2013 with Carrie Underwood would have seen Brown as Nun No. 13 to Audra McDonald's The Mother Abbess.
When O'Brien called Brown about the part, she initially had to think about it. "I never knew this was going to come in my life so quickly. I was like, 'Oh, I'll do that in like 20 years,'" she said. "Here I am and I'm loving it."
To get the show back to its realistic essence, O'Brien used some special techniques, like telling his actors not to sing any of the songs for several weeks. Instead, they spoke the lyrics to really understand their characters and not let the beautiful songs lull anyone to sleep.
"I don't mean to backhandedly dismiss 50 years of great work, but these beautiful songs are like rafts on a river. You step on them and they just carry you along. And you're perfectly happy to have that happen," he said. "I want people to see and hear a piece they think they know completely fresh."
Mark Kennedy is at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits