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The Sound of Music in Berkeley

September 27, 2012

The Sound of Music, born on Broadway in 1959 has since become the stuff of skits and slams, as well as reverence and audience sing-alongs, a 1950s anthem to the carefree heart. Think of the songs “16 Going on 17” and “Do-Re-Mi.”

Bessie ZolnoThe famous escape of the family over Maria's beloved mountains adds a touch of adventure, along with some sinister moments in Act 2 when Nazi soldiers arrive to search the von Trapp family home.

But it’s been 70 years since Nazis were in power in Germany and for the youngest generation they have lost their monstrous specter, becoming mainly the adversaries of comic-book heroes. But in the Berkeley Playhouse version of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic, the directors are doing their best to reconnect history to the musical.

One of the young adults in the cast is Bessie Zolno. She’s 14, in the 9th grade at Oakland Technical High School. She’s serious about acting and has had half a dozen auditions just in the last month. “I’m trying to get myself out there,” she says. A few weeks ago, she did a 24-hour Playfest at the Playwright Center in San Francisco. And she’s been in several Berkeley playhouse productions, including Born and Raised, the musical about gay pride — which may be a measure of both Zolno’s range and her character.

In The Sound of Music, she is the only actor under 18 in an adult ensemble. She plays the role of both a novice nun and a Nazi soldier. Zolno is Jewish.

I shook my head through the phone. What an extraordinary position to be in, I said.

“It’s an interesting combination of characters,” she replied, and went on to explain that the production addresses the German connection directly and between the scenes includes footage of Nazi marches or Nazi soldiers pretending to be good citizens on the street corner of a captured city.

“To play the role,” says Zolno, “[the producers] showed us historical evidence, the sorts of marching songs that Hitler used to arouse the youth and the manipulative mind games that he played on the Austrians’ — having Nazi holding cans for donations; pretending to look sympathetic.”

How did she prepare for this role? She replied that she had studied something of the world of nuns. “I’ve also read Night.” She added. “And Jacob’s Rescue. And The Wave. Also, some holocaust survivors came to our school once and we were able to interview them.

Any reservations, I asked.

“No reservations. It’s interesting to look at this experience from a different point of view. Really it makes me feel better because now I’ve seen both sides and I can come to my own conclusion.”

The Sound of Music, Berkeley Playhouse, Oct. 27 - Dec. 2, Julia Morgan Theatre in Berkeley.

Mark MacNamara, a writer and journalist based in Asheville, North Carolina, has written for such publications as NautilusSalonThe Stanford Social Innovation Review, and Vanity Fair. From time to time, his pieces in San Francisco Classical Voice also appear in ArtsJournal.com.  Noteworthy examples include a piece about Philip Glass’s dream to build a cultural center on the Pacific Coast; a profile of sound composer Pamela Z and an essay on the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. MacNamara recently won several awards in the 2018 Greater Bay Area Journalism Awards presented by the San Francisco Press Club.  His website is macnamband.com.

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