July 29, 2013

 Redlands Bowl audiences are sure to find many of their favorite things in this week's performances of "The Sound of Music" -- the soaring Rodgers and Hammerstein score, for example, plus seven charming children and a chorus of well drilled singing and dancing nuns.

But this production, which opens Thursday, adds a real-life love story: Hannah Jeanette Ayotte, who plays Maria, and Jonathan Briggs, who plays Captain Georg von Trapp, are engaged.

"Every time we rehearse the wedding scene," Ayotte said, "I'm thinking, 'Oh, oh, oh! Only 40 more days until we do this for real.' "

The couple will marry in September at First Congregational Church in Redlands -- and no, they are not going to walk down the aisle to "How You Solve a Problem Like Maria?" or dance the Laendler at the reception.

Ayotte and Briggs met during last year's LifeHouse Theater production of "The Sound of Music," in which they also played Maria and the Captain.

Both said they felt a spark quickly, but each decided independently to wait until the show was over to do anything about it.

"If it was real, it could wait a few more weeks," Briggs said. "If it hadn't been real and we had pursued it then, it could have jeopardized the show."

Ayotte was thrilled when her now-fiancé asked for her number after the final performance. She said her mother, Joanne, and her sister, Sarah, the LifeHouse Theater production's Mother Abbess and music director, respectively, knew what was happening before she did.

Joanne Ayotte said she remembers it as an exciting time.

"Playing the Mother Abbess to Jeanette's Maria was a joy, as was being under the directorship of my other daughter, Sarah," she said. "Both Sarah and I knew the Lord was putting together a special romance between Jonathan and Jeanette. I was thankful to have a ringside seat."

The pair got engaged in January, and worked together to prepare for auditions for the Bowl production. They were both eager to be in the show, in whatever roles they got, but neither wanted to be cast without the other.

"I think we were both very relieved when it worked out this way," Ayotte said.

The Sound of Music is based loosely on the autobiography of Maria von Trapp, "The Story of the Trapp Family Singers." It begins as Maria, a postulant nun, takes an assignment as governess to the Captain's seven children in World War II era Austria, and ends as the family escapes the Nazi regime.

The real-life Von Trapps toured the world as a family choir for many years and established a ski resort in Vermont that still exists.

The show offers a lineup of songs that have become standards: "Edelweiss," "My Favorite Things," "Climb Ev'ry Mountain," "Do-Re-Mi," and the title song, "The Sound of Music," are just a few.

Ayotte, 27, of Redlands, who has worked as a teacher, said she especially enjoys interacting with the children in the cast: Carlye Porrazzo plays Liesl, Matthew Funke is Friedrich, Carissa Burns is Louisa, Andrew Flory is Kurt, Haven Watts is Brigitta, Katie Hornung is Marta and Clare Watts is Gretl.

"We have so much fun," she said. "It's wonderful to see how the characteristics of the kids meld into the characters they play."

At 31, lifelong Redlands resident Briggs is younger than many men who

play Captain Von Trapp. But as a divorced father "" his 4-year-old attends rehearsals and knows all the songs "" he said he can empathize with what is going on in the widowed Captain's life.


"His world has gone sideways," Briggs said. "I've had the same kinds of troubles. I feel as if I understand him."

The makeup crew helps, too, he said. "They spray my hair gray. I gray up pretty well."

Redlands Bowl first produced The Sound of Music in 1977, and this is its fourth production. Ayotte and Briggs have been in the show seven times between them: Before this year's and last year's productions, Briggs played Rolf, Liesl's erstwhile boyfriend, in a Bowl production; Ayotte played Maria in a Riverside Youth Theatre production and was a chorus nun with Performance Riverside in 2011.

"I love the nuns' music," Ayotte said. "I go to the back and I'm singing along with them all the time."

The Sound of Music doesn't have a mixed chorus like those of most other Rodgers and Hammerstein shows. Instead, a chorus of women sings music based on Gregorian chant, all of it challenging and most of it a cappella, in as many as six parts.

The Bowl production has about 30 experienced singers in the nuns' roles, said Sarah Horn, who plays Sister Margaretta. Even so, she said, the group had to hold extra rehearsals to get the music learned.

And the nuns don't just stand and sing "" this is the moving-est nun's chorus of the three Horn has been a part of, she said.

"Our choreographer, Dustin Ceithamer, is a joy," she said. "He makes almost a production number of our part. He does a lot with hand-ography, and we march around in lines that end up looking very intricate."

Producing and directing The Sound of Music is Wayne Scott, founder and owner of the Life House Theater in Redlands.

"What a remarkable man of character, kindness and goodness," Briggs said. "He's so generous with the cast and crew, and creates a real family atmosphere."

Also contributing to the family atmosphere are the family members in the cast, among them Briggs' parents, Randy and Lauren, who play Baron and Baroness Elberfield; Brenda Porrazzo, the Mother Abbess, who is Von Trapp child Carlye Porrazzo's mom; and Ray Watts, father of Von Trapp children Haven and Clare Watts, who plays Admiral Von Schreiber.

Helping Scott guide the show are assistant director Nathan Prince, stage manager Sally Inglis, choreographer Dustin Ceithamer, vocal director Sarah Ayotte, music director and conductor Nolan Livesay, set designer Tim Mahoney and production assistant Jonathan Bushey.

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