So iconic is Julie Andrews’ performance in the 1965 film version of The Sound of Music that any subsequent stage revival has had a very hard mountain to climb indeed.
Petula Clark’s age and sometimes peculiar vocal style in the role of Maria divided the critics in the 1981 London production, while the 1998 Broadway revival closed after a little over a year, the cast being described by one critic as ‘tepid’.
But Andrew Lloyd Webber made life even harder for his new production, which opened at the London Palladium two weeks ago, by using a reality-television series competition, charmingly entitled How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?, to cast the role of Maria.
As everyone on earth must know by now, the winner was Connie Fisher, the bookies’ favourite from the start (though not mine, I should add). But sadly, Fisher’s Cinderella-like whirlwind transformation from telesales-person to West End star has already taken its toll after less than a month in the part. At the performance on 27 November 2006, at least, her singing was breathless and heavily amplified; she looked tired and awkward, and had little stature on the stage. Where was that belting voice, self-assurance and exuberance that won over the hearts of the nation in September?
Originally, Connie was to have shared the role of Maria with another actress, Emma Williams (who originated the role of Truly Scrumptious in the stage production of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang). But when she won the part of Maria, Fisher announced live on TV that “every night will be an opening night” for her and that she will play eight shows a week. A week later, Williams withdrew from the production, leaving the path free for Fisher to perform all eight shows. Having witnessed her efficient but decidedly underwhelming performance, I really wish she would give way to another actress for some of the schedule. There would be no shame in doing this, but if she continues to struggle visibly and audibly at the current rate, she could be burned out in no time (which would be a huge pity, given her considerable talents).
It wasn’t all bad: she mustered a firmer tone for the reprise of Sixteen Going On Seventeen and other songs during the second act, but elsewhere what we heard was thinly pitched. There was absolutely no chemistry between Connie and her Captain von Trapp, Alexander Hanson, and the most romantic scene in the show was played for laughs. Then again, Hanson was a very late replacement for Simon Shepherd, who left the show after only two previews. This can only have increased the tension for poor Connie, and although the first-night reviews were generally good, the press has pried relentlessly and ungenerously into her private life ever since. Indeed, I admire her for carrying on at all under these circumstances, but this production won’t really settle down until a change of cast allows an established musical theatre star to give the show the kind of punch it needs.
At the moment, the only person putting the showbiz into this most beloved of musicals is soprano Lesley Garrett, whose natural singing ability makes the Mother Abbess the most vivid character in the whole thing. As the Captain, Alexander Hanson is rather under-used considering his superior abilities as an actor and singer, though even he could be a bit more forceful.
Whereas Connie Fisher is merely ordinary in the lead role, Lauren Ward and Ian Gelder are absolutely excruciating as Baroness Elsa Schraeder and Max Detweiler, Von Trapp’s betrothed and friend respectively. In The Sound of Music, the Captain’s choice should be between the sophistication of the Viennese Baroness and the simplicity of the countrified Maria, but in this production Ward’s appearance is so plastic that one wonders what the attraction for the Captain ever was. Meanwhile, Gelder was so hyperactive and nervous as to belie his considerable stage experience. He’s also no singer, so it was a waste of time to revive two songs for him and the Baroness – How Can Love Survive? and No Way to Stop It, the latter also briefly featuring the Captain – that the 1965 movie wisely dropped. They are generic 1950s Broadway fare, and unbelievably irritating.
Yet for all this tinkering with the score and libretto, it’s nevertheless an irresistibly fun night out. Robert Jones’ sets and costumes are gorgeous for the most part, and Jeremy Sams directs an assured performance on the whole. Arlene Phillips’ choreography is dire, though the seven solid performances from the kids make up for a lot. I especially liked Jack Montgomery’s strongly sung and characterised Kurt; his more experienced adult colleagues could learn a lot from him.
What makes this show indestructible is its creators, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. It was their last score together – Hammerstein died of cancer soon after – and there’s a poignancy about numbers such as Edelweiss and the haunting title song that overcomes a host of misgivings about this humdrum revival and makes one glad still to be alive. And Lesley Garrett’s performance of Climb Every Mountain, the show’s greatest song, justly brings down the house at the end of Act I. Without her, I’m not sure the show would bear witness to more than the occasional sound of music.