Review Round-up: Sound Opening Solves Problem
Date: 16 November 2006
With a leading lady chosen by TV audiences, the withdrawal of a respected alternate, a leading man swapped in previews and rumours of other backstage trouble, the odds were stacked against Andrew Lloyd Webber’s much-hyped production of The Sound of Music winning over the critics (See News, 17 Sep 2006). But anyone who bet on a bloodbath last night (15 November 2006, previews from 3 November) at the London Palladium, will be counting their losses this morning. According to the majority of overnight reviews, any lingering problem has indeed been solved in Jeremy Sams’ £4 million production.
The winner of BBC talent search How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria? Connie Fisher makes her West End debut playing nun-turned-nanny Maria in the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic opposite Alexander Hanson, who only last week stepped in to replace Simon Shepherd as Captain Von Trapp (See News, 6 Nov 2006). The production also stars soprano Lesley Garrett as the Mother Abbess, Lauren Ward as the Baroness, Ian Gelder as Max, Sophie Bould as Liesl and Neil McDermott as Rolf, as well as three teams of children.
While many critics admitted they took some winning over due to the nature of her casting, “the people’s Maria” Connie Fisher came up trumps in today’s notices. But the real star seemed to be the show itself, saved from inherent schmaltziness by the fun and respectfulness of Sams’ high-quality production. Critics were also impressed by Alexander Hanson’s surprisingly assured turn as the captain and the sterling supporting performances from Lesley Garrett, Lauren Ward and Ian Gelder, and couldn’t help but let their hearts be melted by the talented troupe of seven children. Robert Jones’ design, Arlene Phillips’ choreography and Simon Lee’s musical supervision were all individually praised.
Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (5 stars) – “Jeremy Sams and his designer Rob Jones have spring-cleaned every nook and cranny of the show, from a chorus of nuns proceeding through the aisles singing the ‘Dixit Dominus’ (the only number Rodgers ever ‘researched’ in his life) to the staging of the von Trapp family concert as a sinisterly shadowed (and filmed) Nazi propaganda exercise. In the pit, Simon Lee extracts every nuance and flavour from Robert Russell Bennett’s marvellous orchestrations, with a repertoire of conducting poses and expressions that make the late Carl Maria Giulini suffering through Mahler look like a wilting violet…. Lesley Garrett is a humorously humanised and thrillingly vocalised Mother Abbess. Ian Gelder gives the performance of his career as the accommodating Max…. And Lauren Ward… is pure perfection as the snooty baroness…. Ah, the children… they are delightful without being simpering… Tiny Adrianna Bertola as Gretl stole all hearts on opening night…. The show solves yet another problem: where to take the family for a Christmas treat – assuming you can still get tickets.”
Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph – “How could this musical be a favourite thing of anyone with aspirations to being cool and hip? The awful truth has to be faced, however. As a child, I adored the 1965 movie…. It was obvious that Connie Fisher was going to win, and deserved to win. And she makes an absolutely enchanting Maria in Jeremy Sams’ opulent production, handsomely designed by Robert Jones, that pays Rodgers and Hammerstein the compliment of taking the musical seriously, never once descending into camp…. As I watched, my eyes were often unexpectedly filled with tears, and having felt 51 going on 84 when I entered the theatre, I left with a spring in my step and a smile on my face. Suddenly the world seemed a better, brighter place…. With her rosy-apple cheeks and fresh-as-a-daisy appearance, Fisher plays the tomboyish, virginal heroine with a lovely warmth and conviction. She sings superbly, achieves a delightful rapport with the impossibly cute children in her care, and when she finds herself surprised by love of a more adult kind, she is suddenly deeply affecting.”
Sheridan Morley in the Daily Express – “The tills are alive again with the sound of singing nuns. True, the new Jeremy Sams staging at the Palladium is not as bad as it might have been, given a certain amount of backstage chaos in rehearsal, but the show has always struck me as the most schmalzily objectionable of all Rodgers and Hammerstein’s classic collaborations…. They still haven’t altogether solved the problem called Maria…. (Fisher) is competent at the singing and the acting: the problem is that she is totally lacking in warmth or a sense of comedy, so precisely how she wins over the hearts of the seven von Trapp children and then their autocratic father remains something of a mystery. In an oddly undercast production, the true star is Lesley Garrett… while the best performances come from Lauren Ward as the Countess and Ian Gelder as the agent who, in the production’s sole burst of drama, gets arrested by the Nazis even while his beloved von Trapps are escaping over the mountains which on Robert Jones’ curious set look like upturned cardboard spaceships. But already I am feeling guilty: attacking The Sound of Music is like stealing sweets from children, even if you do feel watching the show as though you are being hit over the head with melting ice lollies… The show is treated respectfully but with a fatal lack of passion or involvement.”
Michael Billington in the Guardian – (4 stars) – “Whatever one thinks of the process of casting a lead role through a TV elimination game, the truth is that Connie Fisher (‘the people's Maria’) occupies the Palladium stage with absolute confidence and winning charm…. With her engaging smile and rangy stride, she reminds me faintly of a junior games mistress at my prep school. But, under the scrubbed innocence, there's also the right hint of sexiness…. Above all, Fisher has a clear, crystalline voice that relishes every note of Richard Rodgers’ music and every syllable of Oscar Hammerstein's lyrics…. Alexander Hanson, replacing Simon Shepherd at short notice, admirably suggests a man of stiff-necked naval rectitude who slowly melts under the benign influence of Maria. Lesley Garrett also endows the Mother Abbess with a genuine humanity and even manages to deliver ‘Climb Every Mountain’ - my least favourite number - as a song of aspiration rather than a secular hymn. Robert Jones designs the show elegantly, making good use of a tilted disc to suggest the Austrian mountains.”
Benedict Nightingale in the Times (4 stars) – “Connie Fisher overcame a nervy start (so many gestures I thought she was both conducting the orchestra and directing the traffic in nearby Oxford Street) to give a fine singing and even acting performance as the nun turned governess and governess turned wife, Maria. And Alexander Hanson was so sound as her employer turned husband, Captain von Trapp, that he could have been playing the role for as long as box-office success will surely compel him to perform it. Add Lesley Garrett as a Mother Superior with a voice so ample and rich that it shrinks the Palladium to the size of the Black Hole of Calcutta, and she, Fisher and Hanson could be in their jobs for years…. I tend to resist winsome heroines and lovable kids…. I would normally wince when an opera singer of Garrett’s stature sonorously invited me to climb every mountain, ford every stream and follow every rainbow until I found my dream…. Yet I acknowledge the pull of a show whose tale draws on three elemental fairy stories: Cinderella, Snow White and Beauty and the Beast. The self-effacing Maria gets her palace, makes seven sprogs happy and transforms a bossy grouch into an agreeable as well as handsome princeling. Or, to put it less pretentiously, it’s Mills and Boon with wonderfully hummable songs, plus a little politics to assuage clever folk who feel guilty for enjoying themselves…. This is not, I fear, why I remain a Sound of Music nerd. That has more to do with Fisher’s sweet, unpretentious Maria leading an excellent septet of von Trapp midgets in ‘Do-Re-Mi’ and other songs. Why, they could even convert me to kittens with mittens on their whiskers.”
Paul Taylor in the Independent (4 stars) – “The hills are alive and that's pretty wonderful in Jeremy Sams' adorable revival of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic…. The only people likely to be less than jubilant about this latest addition to the West End's miracle season of musicals are the producers of the top-notch rival shows…. Alexander Hanson is excellent as Captain von Trapp… And the moment when he allows the sound of music to melt his iced heart by joining the superb children in their heavenly rendition of the title song would make even the hardest eye mist with tears. As for the big question - does Connie Fisher, winner of TV's How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria?, solve the problem of how you play Maria under such intense scrutiny - the answer is: you bet. She's enchantingly fresh and ardent and she sings with a voice that can range from piping purity to soft tenderness… Fisher combines a gawky tomboy quality with the moral mettle of a young woman who will obey authority only when she respects it…. Sams does a terrific job with the direction, aided by Arlene Phillips' knock-out choreography. The ‘Do-Re-Mi’ sequence builds marvellously: as the children shift from suspicion of Maria to complete conversion, the dancing and the miming of the explanatory activities gets ever more wittily uninhibited while remaining (in production terms) totally disciplined. Where did they find these kids? Lesley Garrett is phenomenal… Robert Jones' sets are beautiful; the costumes are beautiful; the children are beautiful - even ze orchestra iz beautiful…. Climb every mountain? Sure, and after this show you'll want to do a little dance, too, on the summit.”
Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (3 stars) – “The Sound of Music… continues to touch, soothe and manipulate about 10 different, intimate chords of its entranced audiences…. Watching the septet of exceptionally appealing and talented child actors, who play Captain von Trapp's neglected offspring and go into Do-Re-Mi, My Favourite Things and Edelweiss with such natural gusto, I saw the light. I at last understood what drives plenty of adults, as well as youngsters, to go wild with pleasure over The Sound of Music. For people whose childhoods were damaged by a parent's death, lack of love or care and concern, The Sound of Music offers the chance of a replacement-dream…. The songs, often childish lullabies of reassurance, complete the therapy for those in need. I, conversely, cringe at their ingratiating winsomeness and whimsy. Connie Fisher… may not yet be a convincing actor, and uses her hands far too much to signal emotion, but her voice takes the high notes and she sings with serious ardour…. Alexander Hanson's von Trapp proves a wooden, aggressively boring widower… Lesley Garrett's Mother Superior sings Climb Ev'ry Mountain with passionate conviction, though otherwise looks and sounds uncomfortable…. Although Fisher's Maria pleased me, The Sound of Music sadly leaves me unstirred.”
- by Caroline Ansdell & Terri Paddock
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