Are Roman arena auditions the future for music theatre? That's the topic obsessing drama critics at UK cocktail parties. It's a question prompted by the huge success of "How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria," the BBC's live, elimination show for the role of Maria Von Trapp. Overseen by the English Lord of the industry himself, Andrew Lloyd Webber, the show's sparked an ongoing debate. Should immediate, audience acclaim count for more than seasoned judgement? And if it does, isn't that a sure-fire guarantee of ticket sales? Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps. Regardless of what the future may hold—televised auditions for every Broadway show, anyone?—"Maria" remains compelling. Why, the tears on offer, however enhanced by Glycerine, touch even the stoniest hearts!
Not host Graham Norton's, however. Always impishly impassive in the face of misfortune, he introduces a beaming Webber as the "Phantom Force," reminding us this is the last time Andrew can save a Maria. From next week, all the eliminations will be strictly decided by audience votes.
Does that worry our remaining contestants? Hardly. In fact, as we cut to reaction shots, Beautiful Maria Siobhan simply relishes the challenge, like a vampire queen savoring human hors d'oeuvres. "They can bend me and shape me any way they want," she says. Gee—is she suffering from a Marilyn Monroe complex? Nobody since the aforementioned Miss M. has been so eager to please her public! Entertainer Maria Helena, meanwhile, is the polar opposite of eagerness. Caught sans make-up, she's a flash-frame of deep-frozen anxiety and frightening fragility, but graced with extraordinary, maverick charisma. She's one dark horse that might still pip the post.
Cut to the studio, and the panel underline their requirements for a credible, leading lady. Simply, they want a Maria who's young, with the chutzpah to dominate the Von Trapps, both captain and children. So tonight, each Maria's compelled to do a big production number. "It'll be all singing and dancing for real" stresses Webber. "There are no backing tracks. What you see is what you'll get."
And first off the bat? Intense Maria Connie, whose strikingly evident canine teeth obviously help focus her CD-perfect tones. Encased in a heavily boned black bustier straight from Fetish Central, she steamrollers through "If I Can't Have You," a late 70s hit for Yvonne Elliman. It's efficient but stiff, a paradox for a performer in a flame-orange, satin skirt guaranteed to camp up the most uptight singer. Still, she obviously scores points beyond the ken of ordinary mortals. "You set the standard for everyone else" said co-producer David Ian. And perceptive as always, John Barrowman also told Connie that "every time you do something, you tell a story. That's important." Vocal coach Zoë Tyler, however, was more equivocal. "There are girls with clearer voices…" she began, only to be drowned by flurries of protest from La Norton. No problem—Zoë's put temperamental divas in their place for years. "Excuse me," she growled, "I've put up with you interrupting me every week, Graham—let me have my say."
With one tongue laid to rest—temporarily, at least—it was time for another. The idol of middle-aged men nationwide, Beautiful Maria Siobhan stormed the stage. All short, red-lace dress and gypsy choker, she delivered a slow-burn "All That Jazz," striking a perfect, brassy tart note, complete with a totally unexpected, hugely authentic foghorn rasp. The audience reaction? Ecstatic. A quick pan to the panel shows Andrew in apparent bliss, but, as always, the others demur. "Siobhan has a lazy mouth," Zoë Tyler stated in no uncertain terms. "We're concentrating on her diction, and I don't know if she can give one hundred percent, and I shouldn't be saying that on a semi-final show." Oh dear. Even a normally upbeat John Barrowman expressed doubts. "I don't think you inhabited the song this evening," he said. "It needed to get dirtier." Did any hope, fading or otherwise, remain? For sure: David Ian, who's never disguised his admiration for Siobhan. "You were delightful and fantastic," he gushed. "Every red-blooded male in the audience would agree with me. I'd be delighted for you to be Maria," he concluded. Only the Lord himself was not so sure. "You've got to take one giant leap," he chided Siobhan. "Don't say I could be Maria, say I AM!"
And speaking of leaps of faith, bid hello to Miracle Maria. Puzzled? Don't be. Formerly known as Entertainer Maria Helena, she's been re-christened by Graham Norton on account of her three previous miraculous escapes. "I'm going to keep fighting every step of the way," she insists, and she'll need to, with "My Heart Will Go On" to cover. "The song selection's to assess vocal stamina," explains Andrew, "and it's from Céline Dion, who has vocal muscles stronger than cast iron, and probably stronger than the Titanic." Maybe so, but Helena's soaring passion gives strident Céline a run for her money. Thrillingly spine-chilling on the top notes, Helena's less assured on the way down, but gives a five-star effort. And it's only after she's finished Andrew reveals that astonishingly, she's sung with a cracked rib, and still pulled out the stops. But with financial realities to consider, there's no room for sentiment from the panel. "That was your best performance so far," mused David Ian "but you still keeping coming in the bottom two of the viewer's votes. As a commercial producer I wonder if you're not popular with the public." Zoë disagreed. "When she's on it one hundred per cent, I know—what a fantastic soprano." John Barrowman also felt "she's done enough for me," but the warmest comments came from Andrew himself. "I'm really glad I saved her four times," he enthused. "Her [over-emoted] facial expressions weren't a problem tonight. And I know about the injury, which makes the vocal support absolutely extraordinary."
Cut to a clearing of the decks for Tomboy Maria Abi, attempting "Maybe This Time" in her usual unflustered, smooth-as-molasses way. Puzzlingly dressed in a sky-blue cheongsam straight from the "The World of Suzy Wrong," she slowly rolled over the backs of four moody hunks in a misguided attempt at aspirational choreography. Matters weren't helped by her wobbly vibrato, and John Barrowman immediately targeted the danger signs. "You've been inconsistent, and it's about consistency. I'm worried." While Zoë praised a "big, belty performance," David Ian echoed John. "Inconsistency's the enemy of musical theatre. Maria's got to be fantastic Monday to Saturday, not part-time. Sorry." Even Andrew seemed dour. "I'm not sure about you as Maria. I really am not," he said. Lastly, Irish Maria Aoife attacked "Footloose" with a sheer, shamrock oomph that connected with the audience better than a live cable in a monsoon. "The audience loves you" cooed David Ian, "which makes me love you." John, if "impressed," found Aoife's dancing "loose," while Zoë seemed relieved she "no longer sounds like a squeaky 9-year-old." Perhaps Andrew's not feeling "absolutely sure" about her vocal security prompted the first face-off of the night—Abi versus Aoife, both singing "Any Dream Will Do."
The loser? Tomboy Maria Abi, with another elimination to come later that night. Sugar-coated by rehearsal footage of the girls kissing John Barrowman—to assess their connection with the leading man, naturally—the results show quickly cut to the chase. "I had no idea I'd kiss John Barrowman," Helena swooned. "I just felt myself melting…' We also learned Siobhan "can't connect" for John, before finding she'd been voted joint lowest by the audience with Aoife. Still, forced to sing "Don't Cry For Me Argentina" against Irish Maria, she came through, by the skin of her improbably white teeth. And then there were three…
Next week, the Grand Finale, with no power of intervention from the Lord! Throughout the UK, watching theatre producers are nailed to their seats!