TV shows don't come much grittier than this, a live, weekly elimination contest to find the ideal Maria for the West End opening of The Sound of Music. This, frankly, is where the tough get steamrollered, in front of the Lord of musical theatre himself, Andrew Lloyd Webber. So far, we've seen hapless hopefuls get sliced 'n' diced down to a lucky nine.
Not since its acclaimed, Royal Ballet documentary has the BBC cast such a naked light on aspiring stars. Okay, the focus is on virtual unknowns, not grand, hissy-fit divas, but it's no less riveting for that. Taking a shrewd page from the Spice Girls' canny marketing of personal quirks, "Maria" follows suit. Accordingly, we get Baby Maria, Intense Maria and Marias from A-Z, a sure-fire way of cementing public empathy for the favorite underdog. It works. Soaring pans over a riveted audience reveal a hell-fire gusto revivalist preachers would die for. That, my dears, is what you call audience commitment, a frenzy echoed by the flood of phone-line votes tonight's grand-standing draws.
Pity the girls. They've got through to the final nine, and suddenly, life's a boot camp. Forcibly bundled together in the fabulously-monikered "Maria House," they undergo intense vocal and acting polishing 24-7. Tellingly, it's only at a mass rendition of James Blunt's über-mawkish "You're Beautiful" that one girl's nerves finally snap. Maybe she's allergic to enforced-sleep, elevator music?
As the old adage says, "It's easy to be a bitch, but hard to be good," and boy, are the girls finding that out! But on the other hand, why should seasoned, show-biz professionals like Webber and producer David Ian expect anything less than perfection? They, after all, have a huge responsibility to their eventual, paying public, and they have every intention of delivering.
Mercifully, the show turns out to be anything but some vacuous exercise in vicarious humiliation. Instead, courtesy of beautifully judged editing and reaction shots, our hearts pound with empathy for the girls. How could they not? On one level, it's like watching kittens waltz into a mincing machine—they have to please the ferociously opposed stylistic tastes of four judges. On one hand, there's vocal coach Zoe Tyler, on a mission for ultimate, vocal purity, and John Barrowman, the Colin Farrell of music theatre, searching for killer, non-stop chutzpah. Add co-producer David Ian's incendiary need for firestorm, box-appeal appeal, plus Andrew's optimistic search for a practically perfect Maria off the bat, and maybe a realistic answer to the casting problem is to draft a team of established, Hollywood, guest-star Marias. So thank God for Graham Norton, the cheeky host who minces angst in his stride. With one twirl of an innuendo, he's able to set any tear-streaked beauty at her ease, despite the horrific ordeal of an unflattering frock. Still, he can't baby-sit them every second. On stage, delivering committee-chosen songs to highlight their strengths and weaknesses, there's no hiding place. The results? Car crashes and wonderment.
Take Belinda, aka Operatic Maria. Wrapped in clinging, ultramarine chiffon, she delivered "Fever" with an icy absence of passion. Somehow, one imagined this wasn't quite what Peggy Lee intended. Visibly disturbed, co-producer David Ian's verdict spoke volumes. "I wanted a more modern Maria," he growled. "Something in you is like a throwback to the 40s.". No way would our refrigerated diva take that lying down. "Whatever," she rudely replied, thoughtlessly risking professional oblivion in the process. (Well, it takes all kinds.)
So cue Tom Boy Maria, aka Abi Martin, an early 20s gamine festooned with bush-baby eyelashes, making a severely understated raid on "Another Suitcase in Another Hall." Predictably, her dormouse delivery got short shrift from vocal coach Zoe. "That's so safe," she opined, then endured Rumanian Simona's jack-hammer attack on Madonna's "Material Girl."
Leaving nothing to chance, the heavily accented hottie checked subtlety in at the onset, but even a faux-Monroe dress couldn't deflect attention from her stubbornly dodgy vowels. Currently, our Diva Maria's hanging on, if only by the skin of her acting teeth.
Next up? Brash Maria, alias Meliz, a walking forest of big hair, big, unfocused heart and sloppy diction you could drown a Webster's dictionary in. "It's awful," John Barrowman emphasized, though one wonders if he wasn't stressing Meliz' dress rather than her vowels.
With which we moved on to Helena, our Earnest Maria, whose upper register rattled with so much metal she should've doubled as a cash register. Still, it never hurt Maria Callas in her prime.
Was judge (and jury) attention beginning to wander? If so, Intense Maria, aka Connie, kicked it back with a splash with an incandescent take on Lulu's "Shout." With manic, lusting hands all over her male, dancing partner, Connie drew frenzied approval from John Barrowman, who also applauded Leanne, the entirely self-taught, Baby Maria of the bunch. "It's become a battle of the divas, ladies—and you've started it!,", he roared.
But Johnny barely had time to sit before those sneaky superlatives possessed him yet again. He wasn't alone. Once dead-in-the-water Siobhan—axed from the first show, then re-instated to replace snarky, self-chosen leaver Emily— resurrected herself. In a slashed, handkerchief-hem crimson dress, Gorgeous Maria (how aptly named) literally sang from the floor and channelled a hot-line to Diva Central. You could've heard a pin drop, Even perfectionist Zoe whispered "You've floored me" with breathless awe, and Johnny's involuntary, standing ovation had him screaming "Hot, hot, hot!!!" Next to that, poor Demure Maria—Irish girl Aoife—could only muster a workmanlike "If They Could See Me Now" to flat-line applause. But who would lose this week? Frantic Brits have to wait 90 minutes for the follow-up, phone-poll results show. In a true nail-biter, Webber himself selected sincere, sloppy-diction Meliz over Icy Belinda's operatic perfection.
The ways of the Lord are just and mysterious!