How often does a mere TV show spark a social revolution? Just four shows in, just weeks from a November West End opening, the live search for Maria is clearing personal diaries nationwide. Judging by a fever pitch, UK media buzz, everyone is making time to see the show. Incredibly, it's tenser than ever, exerting the addictive disbelief of watching amateurs climb a sonic Everest.
And there's no room for complacency; danger signals are flying for those not prepared to give their all. Understandably, Andrew Lloyd Webber is beginning to lose a touch of his beautifully well-bred patience. "We've got to raise the ante hugely," he states, reasonably enough. "Lots of families have already booked eight to ten tickets apiece, and we can't disappoint them. So tonight, we have to see them dance and move; the keynote tonight is fun." Sadly, that's a message that appears to have evaded many of the girls — in their off-stage comments, at least. Atypically, Baby Maria Leanne — looking so young we constantly expect her to be snatched by truant patrols — snipes at Simona, the accent-challenged, Rumanian Maria. "She's a bit big for her boots sometimes. And as for Aoife (Irish Maria) she's got a good voice, but would I pay £65 to see her?" The awesome disdain illustrating that comment speaks volumes, but the show never plays favorites; a quick cut back to the studio spares further blushes and the remaining shreds of Leanne's former innocence.
The Lord, after all, is proffering further nuggets of wisdom, and he's not a voice to be denied. "Experience isn't necessarily everything," he points out. "Being over-educated…[in musical theatre idioms] …can lock one into things."
H'mmm. True enough, but then again, most of the Marias must be taking secret lessons from escape artist David Blaine; they've slipped out of fixes guaranteed to fry meeker souls.
Take Beautiful Maria Siobhan, the first contestant up tonight. Even an unfortunate wardrobe decision — a tiny, red-fringed leopard dress — doesn't scupper her evident, high spirits. What a pity; listening to her own performance later certainly will. In a thin bleat best suited to a herd of grieving spring lambs, she made "Jump (For My Love)" an exercise in instant avoidance strategy. Inexplicably, judge Zoe Tyler adored Siobhan. "You could so be Maria," she gushed. "Believe in yourself." Still looking doubtful, Siobhan was forced to deliver two ringing, note-perfect lines from "I Could Have Danced All Night," reconfirming her talent to herself — and the judges. Following our slightly breathless, leopard-skinned lovely came Baby Maria Leanne, costumed as a killer, sexy secretary singing "Nine To Five."
Previously, Leanne's singing chutzpah had masked her glaring, acting deficiencies. Not tonight. "You move awkwardly," stated a deadpan David Ian, an evaporation of enthusiasm echoed by Zoe. "You're getting a bit samey, Leanne. I'm Bored." Even John Barrowman — normally one to find gemstones in garbage — concurred. "Neither of you gave leading lady performances tonight," he mused. "They were too safe. You've gotta push that limit!" Whew. Who'd have the guts to surface after those broadsides? Why, the next contestants, of course. Enter Irish Maria, Aoifa and Helena, a.k.a. Entertainer Maria. Earlier, Belinda had been filmed pondering back stage, producing a rare flash of acute insight. "No matter how much training we have, none of us are safe." How true, so there was no reason to hold back. Swirling her high-cut, scarlet skirt like a drag queen in delight, she unleashed an intense — albeit strident — assault on "Fame." Aoifa, meanwhile, aimed for the grown-up vote, lighting watching libidos with "Sway."
Surprisingly, for an Irish girl with a pronounced accent as problematical as Simona's, Aoifa got an across-the-board thumbs-up. Zoe Tyler, especially, could barely contain herself. "You did an amazing job," she trilled. "Yes, I've been harsh, but it's not local talent night at a working men's club."
John Barrowman also seemed besotted: "You made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end." While for co-producer David Ian, Aoifa remains "the perfect looking Maria." And even Lloyd Webber saw no reason to equivocate. "Both you and Helena would be in the last three," he purred, "even if Helena's stuck in the queue at Heathrow in terms of this particular journey." Cue a short pause for show-biz breath as a flurry of cuts detail an in-panel dispute. The subject? Belinda, a.k.a. Operatic Maria, last week's face-off loser. But if all's fair in love and war, not everyone's happy with winner-by-default Meliz, a.k.a. Sexy Maria. "She doesn't deserve to be here," raged John Barrowman. "Get back and look at the tape. She was rubbish on her song." Even Lloyd Webber agrees with John's view, if a little more graciously: "Well, Belinda was a little bit too old-fashioned, but on the other hand, Meliz was truly ghastly…but overall, her acting was stronger."
Cut to reaction and comments from Meliz herself, which only fueled the fury. "Simona acts like a diva and throws strops. She clearly can't be Maria," Meliz rasped. "I've been too nice. I have to focus on myself and nothing else…" She did. A barnstorming "Girls Just Want To Have Fun" underlined her strengths and weaknesses. Ironically, she's wasn't quite brassy enough. Told by Lloyd Webber that she's got to "sell a song," Tomboy Maria Abi ravished "Big Spender," completely stealing Sexy Maria's thunder. All sub-Fosse severity, complete with a "Cabaret"-style chair routine worthy of Liza, Abi delivered in spades.
The panel agreed. "Meliz, you were beautiful," said John Barrowman, "but you didn't pull it out [of] the bag. Abi, though; you didn't crack, you pulled it off."
And Zoe Tyler's accompanying Cheshire Cat grin banished Abi's anxiety at a glance. "You were big, ballsy not laid-back," she said, with David Ian similarly praising Abi as "leading lady material."
On to Connie and Simona, the final two. Visibly petrified, despite days of intense dialect coaching, Rumanian Maria tackled "I Only Want To Be With You," a challengingly wordy choice. She managed superbly, her passion melting the Stage. Intense Maria Connie, meanwhile, oozed smoked-velvet elegance through "My Baby Just Cares For Me." Predictably, both performances profoundly split the panel. "I don't think you're Maria in a million years," growled David Ian to Simona. "Connie, however, is solid as houses." Shed no (premature) tears for Simona, however; John Barrowman rushed gallantly to her defense. "No offense to Aoifa, but she's got an accent too!" he reminded the panel. With that easy, critical avenue blocked, the Lord found himself using a subtler approach: "Simona, you may be from the country that gave us the Cheeky Girls, but I wonder you're a bit too feisty for Maria…"
Cue a nail-biting, 90-minute wait for the same-night results show. Jointly receiving the lowest number of phone votes, Meliz and Helena steamrollered through the Lord's very own "Take That Look Off Your Face," to be faced with dead, nerve-shredding silence. "You don't seem able to connect with a theatre," mused the Lord to Meliz. "You're more of a pop or rock star. And Helena…a better voice, but where's the sparkle? Still, with great sadness, I'll save…Helena!" Can there be a worse fate than singing "So Long, Farewell" to girls who, seconds before, were your deadly rivals? And next week, the casualty rate rises; we'll lose two girls by the end of the show.