How time flies when you're not a victim! Safely snuggled at home, audition addicts can watch their pet hates—or loves—being hauled over unforgiving coals. But if these knock-out bouts are (relatively) quick to watch, they're hell to endure. On stage, time stretches like taffy, with the slightest errors blown up to IMAX proportions. So pity the remaining Marias in Andrew Lloyd-Webber's groundbreaking, leading lady elimination show "How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?"; this week, two hopefuls must exit.
And the pressure is certainly starting to show. Even Connie, our Intense Maria, is weeping tears of Biblical proportions to an apparently consoling camera. "I don't want to go back to telesales." she bawls, "please…" Well, who would? The dubious thrills of selling double-glazing hardly match the challenge of nailing Maria Von Trapp! Still, compared to Simona, our Rumanian Maria, Connie is walking in stress-avoidance clover. Faced with an increasingly unavoidable pinch of reality—yes, she is beginning to smell the coffee—Simona's realizing her heavily-accented Maria might not work in the West End. "I've been working so hard," she emphasizes, "and I'm so tired…" Hmm. Are we right to sense a pre-emptive escape route being dug? But then again, exclusion on grounds of accent seems massively unjust. After all, even host Graham Norton himself comes saddled with ultra-camp, Northern Irish trills!
And to be fair, the Lord himself—Andrew Lloyd Webber, that is—has been moved to re-think and widen his critical assessment base. "Whereas originally I thought there could be two or three Marias." he muses, "I now think there could be five."
Bizarrely, he's even been encouraged by the publication of two, leading letters criticizing the show in The Times, the UK's most heavyweight daily. "And so we must be doing something right," he quips. Remember, Webber does think—and move—in mysterious ways, and never more so than turning up completely unannounced at "Maria School." Watching up close and personal as the girls sing, he's unstinting with praise and/or critiques as required. "Helena's problem is facial expression," he says with reference to the Entertainer Maria he's chosen to save twice so far. "She screws her face up."
How true, and we cut to excruciating, pre-shot footage of madam herself to prove the point. "I just want Andrew to like me," Helena anguishes, "to see what a little star I am."
Well, not this time, no matter how strong those Norma Desmond delusions are! Told to sing "Can You Feel The Love Tonight?" she's all squeaky, insubstantial helium, drawing muted approval from panellist John Barrowman. "You could still be my Maria," he states, though Zoe Tyler finds her "too nervous," and co-producer David Ian is sternly unequivocal. "You're not Maria. That was good, not great."
Next up are Abi and Connie, tackling "Summertime" and "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" respectively. While Webber admits "Summertime" isn't "in the natural register for Abi's voice," he's keen to challenge her self-imposed limits. And Connie's choice, too—an iconic, Monroe signature—is made to explore the Lord's interest in "what's really quite a dark lyric about a woman getting older."
In the event, Intense Maria Connie does herself no favors, dancing—and singing—by numbers through a routine straight from the Wal-Mart school of choreography. Shockingly, the panel loved her. "You sold that song," said Zoe Tyler, "but you tend to over-sing. There were some husky notes." David Ian also bubbled with enthusiasm. "You're fabulous. You could so be Maria," he said, while John Barrowman found Connie "excellent."
Audience darling Abi, however, suffered the brickbats of unpredictable taste, despite a performance that oozed louche, New Orleans swagger and stunning breath control. "You were flat, sharp, all over the place." snarled Zoe. "I wish your singing was as strong as your acting." Even a normally chipper John Barrowman seemed troubled. "This week you slipped back into the chorus line," he said.
Oh dear. Could Baby Maria, Leanne, and Irish Maria, Aoife, do as well—or worse? Perhaps a choice of Grease staple "Hopelessly Devoted to You" was hopelessly inappropriate for Leanne. Hobbled with an unresponsive, male partner to dramatize the song—all the better to show her fledgling acting skills—Leanne massively overcompensated. Trying, and failing, to conjure grand, diva passion, she virtually flung him aside to underline the lyrics. Andrew, in particular, was terribly concerned, even in Leanne's pre-show, "Maria School" try-out. "I can't tell if she's singing to the person opposite her or not," he said. "I don't think she's ready to be Maria quite yet." Indeed, and whatever the staging benefits of having a hugely youthful Maria may be, the rest of the panel concurred. Aoife, however, had poise and gravitas to spare. Singing "You'll Never Walk Alone" (which has been sadly misappropriated as a UK football anthem), she hit the beats as solidly as sleeping pills hit insomniacs. Her unique magic, however, eluded broadcasting technology; only those in the panel (and live audience?) got it. "How wonderful to hear it sung in the 4/4 time it was written [in]," raved the Lord. John Barrowman, too, gasped in rapture. "You're my emerald," he panted. "My four-leaf clover!"
Gee, what is it about tall blondes in tight green satin? Well, as with the fall of the Berlin Wall, I guess you had to be there, and this evening's falls from grace were still only half-done. Looking as ill-matched as Kali, Goddess of Death, versus Aphrodite, Goddess of Love, Simona and Siobhan strode on stage.
But hiding in the wings, sheer hubris was waiting. Whatever possessed our Rumanian Maria, Simona, to sing "It's My Turn"? Even total conviction couldn't redeem those impenetrable, Eastern European vowel-sounds. Beautiful Maria, Siobhan, meantime, sparkled with "Songbird," in with the Eva Cassidy arrangement. All bug-eyed sincerity and barely repressed, cupcake glee, she revelled in the blasé charisma of a sure-fire winner. "I was losing myself in your performance." whispered Andrew. "You have the most beautiful voice of all the girls here," stated an equally riveted Zoe Tyler. Sure, Siobhan was good, but did the entire panel have to agree? Token dissent—no matter how blatant—always plays much better to camera! Poor Simona, however, reaped the whirlwind. "You sing superbly, with pride and passion," said David Ian. "But John and Zoe are living in cloud-cuckoo land if they think they can solve that (accent) problem."
The viewers agreed; Simona scored the lowest amount of phone-in votes along with the marginally better-placed Helena. Both forced to sing "Memories" for the Lord, it was Simona who lost, though he entreated her to "take up the audition for Evita." Maybe there is light in our Rumanian Maria's darkness.
Cue the later, same-evening results show, with the remaining Marias performing with the children's cast of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Being comfy with children is, of course, essential to playing Maria, and as Graham Norton quipped, "They're just like people, only smaller!" Predictably, Siobhan—aka Beautiful Maria—proved Jeremy and Jemima's favorite. "If the show was judged on prettiness, she'd win!" they cooed in unison.
But we weren't watching for sweetness and light. Saved earlier at the expense of Simona, Helena had to undergo yet another, third-time lucky resurrection as she faced off Leanne—and won. How much longer can our human jack-in-the-box survive shaky diction? Only next week's show—with two more losers—will tell!