The hills were definitely alive last night – in fact they were tilting and moving too – as The Sound Of Music opened at the London Palladium. In a year dominated by much-hyped musicals, this one might have had even more publicity than the others thanks to the BBC search for a star, How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria? The winner, Connie Fisher, took to the stage last night to rapturous cheers from the first night audience. Matthew Amer was there to see it.
Three months ago the nation had never heard of Connie Fisher and she was only dreaming of appearing in the West End. Yesterday evening she was every inch the leading lady as she lounged on a grass-covered hill, singing in a daydream. She is, of course, playing Maria, the nun who’s not quite right for abbey life so is sent to be governess to seven children who are professionals at forcing governesses away.
Their father, the ex-naval Captain Von Trapp, still wrecked by the death of his wife, has given the children a military upbringing, fearing to get close to them. A light, caring, and probably musical, touch is just what the family needs to bring it together.
That is, of course, just what it gets, with the children threatening to steal the show away from the adult leads every time they sing together. Do-Re-Mi, The Lonely Goatherd and So Long, Farewell, with their dance routines (choreographed by Arlene Phillips) and simple innocence, all received extended applause from the appreciative audience.
This is not to say that the adult cast was entirely overshadowed. Lesley Garrett’s opera pedigree shone through as she made her musical debut in the role of the Mother Abbess, giving her a warm, motherly feel. Alexander Hanson, thrust into the role of Captain Von Trapp just last week following the departure of Simon Shepherd, looked like he’d been through a whole rehearsal period rather than a couple of previews.
And then, of course, there’s Fisher, who, if you didn’t know, you would never believe was picked from a reality television show. Although there are times when you can see Julie Andrews in her performance, this is not an imitation of the film; she has made the part her own. In addition to the singing voice heard by millions of television viewers throughout the summer, Fisher displays the comic timing of a seasoned professional.
With all the niceties it’s easy to forget that the show is set in Austria at the time of the Anschluss. It is not so easy to forget during the performance. Mysterious phone calls come from Berlin as the threat of invasion hangs over the first half like a billowing, poisonous cloud. In the second half the threat becomes real, and the transformation of the Palladium’s auditorium for the concert scene sends shivers down the spine.
Robert Jones’s set is always full of impact, and money has clearly been spent on it. From that multi-directional hill and the towering gothic arches of the abbey, to the vastness of the Von Trapp home and that concert hall, it is nothing if not striking.
Judging from last night’s reception, The Sound Of Music could be one of the West End’s favourite things for a long time.