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Donald Rosenberg  |  August 11, 2012

Doug Elkins' 'Fraulein Maria' bursts with irreverent wit at Hanna Theatre

Say it isn't so, Doug Elkins. You've announced that "Fraulein Maria," your loving goofball of a dance work that sends up "The Sound of Music," is on the last leg of a "So Long, Farewell Tour." Is this a ploy to keep the piece in perpetual circulation? Perhaps putting your brainstorm on the shelf for a while will enhance its delights and make it even more magnetic down the road.

Judging by the audience that chuckled and roared through "Fraulein Maria" Friday at the Hanna Theatre in PlayhouseSquare, Elkins' creation is one of the favorite dance things to come to town since it first played the venue in 2009.

And why not? The New York choreographer takes the familiar soundtrack of the movie version of Rodgers and Hammerstein's sentimental hit and tweaks the narratives to the point of affectionate and whimsical irreverence. In little more than an hour, Elkins employs a banquet of dance styles, including hip-hop, and gender-bending ideas to catapult the story of Maria and her adventures in nanny-hood.

Before the curtain rises, the antic master of ceremonies, Michael Preston (director of the production with Barbara Karger), takes center stage to instruct the audience in singing "Do-Re-Mi" and welcoming Rodgers (on tape) to chat about the movie. Then we're off to the Alps, depicted by dancers stretching long swaths of fabric and Preston adding tiny trees, and the arrival of three Marias count 'em including one who will never bear children.

Elkins treats each song as a mini-drama filled with traditional and contemporary details. The costumes resemble what you know from the movie, but the moves and people inside them hail from an era that favors the kinetic and the quirky.

It's impossible not to smile as the nuns (women and man alike) try to solve a problem like "Maria" with all sorts of impish inflections and wave-like gestures. Elkins proves to be the most musical, and inventive, of choreographers as he creates a distinct dance motive for each note in "Do-Re-Mi," a whirlwind of an ensemble piece that takes the dexterous and buoyant dancers to the edge of exhaustion.

Although most of "Fraulein Maria" functions as a mirthful parody, there are moments when hints of darkness descend. As Preston and Elkins, dressed as a nerdy guy with a hat, try to share a park bench during "Edelweiss," their inability to co-exist suggests ominous political forces at play.

But the atmosphere largely is upbeat, funky and surprising. In "Sixteen Going on Seventeen," the eldest Von Trapp daughter, Liesl, is portrayed by a lanky guy who plants a whopping kiss on the lips of a diminutive Rolf. A hooded Elkins shows up in b-boy attire to offer a breakdance variation on "Climb Every Mountain" that brings down the house.

So do the dancers of Doug Elkins and Friends, as the New York company is known. They manage their quicksilver and acrobatic duties with gleeful personality, earning every accolade they deserve during bows to "So Long, Farewell." Let's hope this cheeky confection surfaces again in years to come.

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