On the hummability scale, 'The Sound of Music' must come close to the top of it, if not right at the melodic pinnacle. Richard Rodgers' compelling score is close to musical perfection, and it's brilliantly enhanced with astute and skilfully crafted lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II - a combination that instantly tunnels like a virulent infection into one's brain, so much so that even someone like me with the long term memory of a fish, finds it hard not to remember almost every word and phrase.
However, it's not just the perfect compatibility of music and lyrics that makes audiences flock unremittingly to 'The Sound of Music'. The show has an endearing love story and a daring escape from the Nazis, which would be sufficient on their own to jerk tears from even the driest of eyes. And if all that wasn't enough, there's the opportunity for a gaggle of children to mesmerise with their talents and charisma. It's a near-perfect recipe.
The plot is very loosely based on the book 'The Story of the Trapp Family Singers' by Maria Augusta von Trapp. I say loosely because there are very significant differences in characterisations, as well as historical accuracy between Maria von Trapp's book and the musical.
In 'The Sound of Music', Maria is a young novitiate in a convent but finds it hard to obey rules because of her love of nature and singing. So she's persuaded to leave the closed community to take up the reigns as governess for 7 children at the palatial home of Captain von Trapp. Maria wins over the mischievous children with her musicality and some much-needed affection. And it's not long before she also wins over her hard-hearted employer too, struggling with her conscience and calling along the way. Mixed in with this heart-wrenching stuff is the political background of the Austro-German Anschluss. Captain von Trapp is called to serve in the German navy, and narrowly avoids conscription by consenting to his family singing in a music festival, enabling him to escape the clutches of the Nazis.
Though Petula Clark had a surprising hit with the part in the early 1980's (she considered herself too old for the part at 51), most people will have Julie Andrews' portrayal of Maria firmly implanted in their memories thanks to the Academy Award winning 1965 film version, directed by Robert Wise. And therein lies the problem with this revival of the show. Because newcomer Connie Fisher, discovered in the BBC talent show 'How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?', is a Julie Andrews look-alike and sing-alike, even down to the cut and colour of her hair. In fact, there were a few moments when I closed my eyes, and heard clear echoes of Andrews' vocal style and delivery. Now I'm not suggesting that it was the intention to impersonate Andrews, but at the same time it was clearly not the intention to give Fisher a very different or unique look - in other words, to give us a new Maria. Fisher certainly has masses of youthful exuberance, charm and a quality singing voice which will no doubt be a significant presence on the musical scene for some time to come. One can't help feeling, however, that director Jeremey Sams has played safe here, not only with an Andrews-like Maria, but a staging which has much in common with the film. Even the type face used in the programme and publicity material bears an uncanny resemblance to that used for the film.
That said, Connie Fisher has a high quality singing voice which amply captures the melodic qualities of Rodgers' tunes. But though her contagious enthusiasm captivates, her acting skills have yet to be honed sufficiently to be wholly convincing. For example, there were times when I wasn't entirely sure what her facial expressions were really trying to convey. Instinct tells me that she'll grow into this role as nerves and the overwhelming media attention pass. And it may well be that, hair style and her appearance not withstanding, she'll bring more of her own personality into the role in the future.
The immensely popular Lesley Garrett produces a fine rendition of 'Climb Every Mountain' as The Mother Abbess. However, I found her speaking voice a little on the 'homely' side. I'm not sure if it's her northern accent, but she gave the impression of a kindly next-door neighbour rather than the Abbess of a convent. And she looks rather too young and glamorous to invest the role with that real sense of wisdom that only age and experience can truly provide.
On the other hand, Alexander Hanson was far too rigidly stiff and formal as Captain von Trapp. But Hanson has only been in the role for a few days, having taken over at the last minute from Simon Shepherd. So, maybe he too will grow into the role in due course. On the plus side, his singing voice has a surprisingly beguiling and haunting quality, that provided the near-perfect counterpart to Fisher's vocal freshness and vitality in their duet.
Overall, the music in this revival is of the highest quality, and the orchestrations complement the singing elegantly without domineering or challenging it in any way. If anyone needed to learn the lyrics, they would be able to do so perfectly here, because almost every word comes over with crystal clarity. The ensemble singing from the nuns is particularly uplifting as well as moving. And the children are well-schooled, and don't fail to delight.
Technologically speaking, this version of the 'Sound of Music', like most new musicals, is teaming with slick technological gadgetry which, for the most part, is appropriate and adds to the fluidity of the show. But with one notable exception. After the opening in the convent, we're transported to the Austrian mountains via an oval window which reveals Maria lying on a mountain slope - it's both surprising and highly effective. But when the window rises, Maria is seen singing and dancing on a giant tilting disc which looks like a sort of enormous pancake. It's used again at the end of the show when the von Trapp family are hiding in the Convent cemetery. Cowering in a corner beside the 'pancake', the family look oddly out of place, though the device comes into its own again when they've climbed the mountain and peer over the top of it at the end of the show. Although one has to admire the skill of Fisher and the other actors (including the very small children) in negotiating this technological bit of granite, there were moments when the contraption seemed oddly amateurish.
'The Sound of Music' still has the power to attract substantial audiences without recruiting them through a TV talent show. But many people will want to see how Connie Fisher has fared since her TV victory. On the whole, one can only admire what she's achieved. But though the production itself is consummately professional, it really adds little that's new or different. In my view, that's a lost opportunity, but I have no doubt that that will be the minority opinion judging by the rapturous reception from the audience.
Next review by Andrea Carpenter
There is a danger in staging a production where the main reference point is a much-loved film. A show which leans heavily on the original might succeed but leaves little to the imagination, while diverting from the much-loved version is in danger of alienating a loyal audience.
For this revival of The Sound of Music, producers Andrew Lloyd Webber and David Ian, chose to take themselves out of the comfort zone by casting the lead role via a BBC reality TV series “How do you solve a problem like Maria?”
Connie Fisher was always a clear favourite on the show with her week-on-week professionalism, even if this made her a less interesting choice as her not-so-polished rivals grew as performers during the series.
But all credit to her. It is a brave Maria that endures the higher level of scrutiny in her first West End role. The show has already survived the loss of its original leading man, Simon Shepherd, as well as the actor first hired to share the lead with Fisher.
The Sound of Music tells of how Maria Rainer’s love for music and singing sees her dispatched from the convent to become a governess for the seven children of the stern widower Captain Georg Von Trapp. Her infectious nature means that music is soon filling the house as she bonds with the children and their father in the shadow of the Anschluss.
What remains in the comfort zone for the production is a conservative staging – aside from a rather unusual sci-fi like mountain - and the ghosts of Julie Andrews. Fisher adopts the Julie Andrews look with her short haircut and often apes her vocal style.
However, you care less about this as the gorgeous melodies of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein just shine through. Do-Re-Mi or My Favourite Things may have been heard a thousand times but this production ensures they retain a freshness on stage which justifies yet another listen.
The show is well-supported by a talented group of children - a crew of nineteen to cover six of the younger roles during the production – whose performances are central to its charm as the cast turns out crowd-pleaser after crowd-pleaser.
Fisher displays the same professionalism as in the TV series, but with too much awkward gesturing her style often lacks a natural touch. Her leaning towards comedy spoils some of opportunities for more sensitive moments in the show. A comical glance to the audience after her first dance with the Captain blurs what should have marked the critical connection between them.
Alexander Hanson as the Captain has a wonderful voice (which works well in harmony with Fisher) and with his reprise of Sound of Music and later singing Edelweiss provided two of the more moving moments in the show.
Lesley Garrett is great as Mother Superior and gives a rousing performance of Climb Ev’ry Mountain even if she does seem a little too glamorous for the habit.
In the end, the threat of the Anschluss is quickly dissipated reducing the resolution of this storyline very much to a subplot. Instead, out front and centre is the joy of the songs at the heart of the production which whether movie or musical is what rightly brings audiences back again and again.
What the popular press had to say.....
PAUL TAYLOR for THE INDEPENDENT says, "Adorable revival...Connie Fisher...enchantingly fresh and ardent and she sings with a voice that can range from piping purity to soft tenderness....Sams does a terrific job with the direction, aided by Arlene Phillips's knock-out choreography." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE says, "Connie Fisher overcame a nervy start to give a fine singing and even acting performance." NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "Although [Connie] Fisher's Maria pleased me, The Sound Of Music sadly leaves me unstirred." CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "Opulent production, handsomely designed by Robert Jones...What's crystal clear in this show is the formidable skill of its construction, the sheer abundance of its melodies and the genuine heart of its story." LISA MARTLAND for THE STAGE says, "Low key staging...what the production sadly lacks is an emotional depth which draws you in to the lives of those on stage." ALASTAIR MACAULAY for THE FINANCIAL TIMES says, "Here is the most old-fashioned big musical staging in town, with numerous, bland storybook sets and a large number of ugly costumes...No performance is more ingratiating than Connie Fisher, the Maria of TV-competition-winning fame. Her singing is blandly efficient, slightly breathy, wholly unindividual in phrasing or timbre, and her acting continually reverts to her home key of Wide-Eyed Sexless Rapture." MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, "I found it surprisingly enjoyable...The Sound of Music is a melodically abundant show that lauds charity, the act of communal music-making and resistance to political tyranny - which possibly explains why it has weathered the years so well."