How do you solve a problem like Maria? By television, apparently. For London’s first revival in a quarter-century of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s megahit, the leading role was cast by the TV voting public. Unknown Connie Fisher won 1.4 million of 2 million votes cast and, listening to her appealingly trim, bright, perky soprano in the title number of Jeremy Sams’ revival of “The Sound of Music,” the thought that springs to mind is “Problem solved.” Not everything about Fisher’s perf matches her singing, but her shine and the production’s sheen are more than enough to keep the box office alive, if not “for a thousand years,” then for a considerable time.
No show is indestructible, but “The Sound of Music” comes pretty close: This world-famous confection of nuns ‘n’ Nazis, song and sentimentality isn’t written, it’s precision-engineered — which is why people either love it or loathe it.
Yet anyone producing or directing the show is instantly faced with a problem. As proved by Singalong-SoundofMusic — the runaway success invented by Robin Baker for a one-time screening at London’s National Film Theater — auds can, and do, recite the movie. The show, however, is musically different. The original stage version includes two songs the movie team ejected but lacks “I Have Confidence” and “Something Good.”
Thus every production team is forced to meddle with a show that, if not a masterpiece (in terms of music-drama, this pales beside “Carousel” and “The King and I”), comes with dangerously high expectations.
Auds arrive wanting the impossible, i.e., Julie Andrews up there in those hills, preferably in that apron. Risking their wrath, this production retains the songs that strengthen the characters of Max and the Baroness but sews in the movie additions, too. Also, “The Lonely Goatherd” is moved to an earlier point, which stops the ball scene from being over-extended and keeps the show moving.
Forward momentum, indeed, would seem to be the watchword for Sams and designer Robert Jones, who open the show with the nuns processing, holding flickering candles and singing “Dixit Dominus” in front of a gauze. They then exit up the aisles as a light picks out the face of Maria asleep against a vertical surface of mountain greenery. As the music rises, so does the gauze, plus the greenery that slowly angles down to form the hillside; and she’s already into the title song without even a moment for entrance applause.
The button also is taken off the first appearance of “My Favorite Things,” in order that the song’s energy can warm the rest of the scene between Maria and the Abbess.
That desire not to linger does, however, bring problems. The broad outline of the story is iron-clad, but it needs detailed playing not to slump into sentimentality, and detail is what’s missing.
Fisher is winningly confident and reproduces Andrews’ beautifully clean sound, which is no mean feat. Although she does lend the role some of her own musical phrasing, she lacks originality and, more worryingly, the essential vulnerability. As a result, the duet “Something Good” is not nearly as ravishing as it should be. It’s the only moment in the evening where conductor Simon Lee’s tempo feels too rushed, probably because he knows Fisher isn’t a skilled enough actress to let auds see her heart melting.
Generalized acting isn’t solely her problem. Lauren Ward, looking lovely in Jones’ precisely period costumes, is so busy playing enervated, angled-wrist hauteur as Baroness Schrader that she forgets to show any reason why the Captain might have fallen for her in the first place.
Alexander Hanson’s well-sung Captain loses his frostiness too early and easily but is effective nonetheless, remarkably so since he took over the role halfway though the show’s short preview run.
More problematically, erstwhile opera star Lesley Garrett’s Mother Superior plays her every scene as an elocution lesson and puts the arch into archbishop. Humility is in short supply — until her diva-style “who me?” curtain call. She does, however, light a fire under “Climb Every Mountain.”
“The Sound of Music” has never been a dance show, and choreographer Arlene Phillips wisely doesn’t try to make a case for it. She touches nice moments of character with Maria naughtily marching across the smart sofa in “Do-Re-Mi” and persuading the children to do likewise. However, Phillips’ physicalizing of each individual note in the same song looks suspiciously similar to the stronger “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” number in “Mary Poppins.”
The biggest disappointment is Mark Henderson’s super-saturated lighting, complete with glutinous fuchsia sunsets disappearing into the land of overkill. Subtlety has never been this show’s strongest suit. Yet when the children (a superbly crisp set of performances at the final preview) sing the title song to their father in seven-part harmony, only those with hearts of reinforced concrete will fail to be moved.
By this point, what has become abundantly clear is that where most recent British directors have patronizingly insisted upon “unearthing” the drama of classic musicals at the expense of the music, Sams (also a composer) understands the primacy of the score in all its magnificently orchestrated glory. He and designer Jones aren’t interested in casting fresh light on Rodgers & Hammerstein’s final collaboration. Instead, they give auds license to revel in smartly presented, well-designed nostalgia.