Hills bursting with life again

All present and correct: Captain von Trapp (Michael Praed) and his children salute their new Governess Maria (Connie Fisher). Pictures Catherine Ashmore

The Sound of Music

Birmingham Hippodrome


IF the hills, and the tills, of Hurst Street are much more alive than usual for the next six weeks then you can thank Connie Fisher and The Sound of Music.

This was Rodgers and Hammerstein's swan-song and widely regarded as one of their best, a true feel-good musical with audiences leaving full of smiles and bonhomie, humming - remarkably tunelessly in at least one case - songs most have  known from childhood.

True it is all a bit sugary with its Enid Blyton Secret Seven style children, all sweetness and light but without a mystery to solve, its 1950s Boy's Own Nazis who should wear hats with baddie written on them and an ending which is the theatrical equivalent of Golden Syrup but it is fun and it is thoroughly entertaining as last night's standing ovation testified.

I must admit I was not a great fan, more of a take it or leave it sort of guy, but this vibrant show is capable of winning anyone over. It certainly passes the watch test with two and a half hours just flying by. No shuffling in seats and surreptitious glances at the old Timex with this one.

The story and indeed the musical itself are from a more innocent age but The Sound of Music still has enough charm to carry it through particularly with a score where more than half the songs were standards from when they were first heard

Connie Fisher as Maria on her beloved mountain in Austria, or at least the Hippodrome stage,  in the dark days of 1938

Connie Fisher as Maria is a delight. She bounces and smiles her way through full of girlish enthusiasm as if she is enjoying every minute.

I am no great lover of glorified karaoke contests to find the next West End stars or indeed the next pop sensation but How do you solve a problem like Maria? did manage to find a real winner in Connie.

She is over the top and larger than life but somehow she gets away with it beautifully. She is full of fun and shows some wonderful comic touches such as when she manages to carry on a conversation with Baroness Schraeder, played with Teutonic glamour by Jacinta Mulcahy, with a mouthful of cake - or “bowfbul ob kayey” as she would say.

Michael Praed is suitably aloof as Captain Georg von Trapp and although he is no Vince Hill when it comes to singing Edelweiss, or anything else for that matter, he gets by.

When it comes to singing though Marilyn Hill-Smith's Climb Every Mountain is worth the price of admission alone. It is no surprise to find The Mother Abbess had a career as an operatic soprano before taking holy orders with principal roles with English  and Welsh National Operas, Scottish Opera, the Royal Opera and D'Oyly Carte among others around the world along with a record 104 appearances on Radio2's Friday Night is Music Night.

The supporting cast meanwhile did just that, supported and added to the whole, particularly Martin Callaghan as Max Detwiler, the Education Secretary and Salzburg Festival organiser who was everyone's friend. He even managed a Brummie joke which I suspect was not in Oscar Hammerstein's original stage directions.

His end was less of a joke at the conclusion of the Salzburg festival of Nazi-style family entertainment in a Swastica bedecked theatre set surrounded by storm troopers on stage and in the boxes- you vill enjoy yourselfs!!!. It was a set which could have come straight from Springtime for Hitler in The Producers.

As for the children? W.C. Fields declared “Never work with animals or children” and you can see why. Six-year-old Elise Blake as Gretl pretty well steals the show and I suspect the other two Gretls (Claudia Hall and Tilly Cheeseman) do the same.

The von Trapp children find shelter from the raging storm outside their Austrian home in the bedroom of their new governess Maria (Connie Fisher)

There are three teams of the six younger children, incidentally, 18 young actors in all. Only Claire Fishenden as the excellent Liesl - who is 16 going on 17 remember - is a permanent fixture.

When Maria, a postulant at Nonnberg Abbey, arrives off the mountain as a governess to Baron von Trapp's seven children - this was in the days before TV and Sky remember - and we find his wife has recently died then you don't need an IQ in double figures to work out the plot. This was standard musical comedy fare, boy meets girls, falls in love, lives happily ever after.

But Rodgers and Hammerstein changed the direction of musicals forever by creating much more of a musical play based on the singing von Trapp's' own story which in turn was set set around the Third Reich's annexation of Austria, the  Anschluss of spring 1938. Boy meets girl and neither want to be part of the Nazi regime. A love story with political drama and overtones. Out of such favourite things come the likes of West Side Story, the musicals of  Andrew Lloyd-Webber and the works of  Stephen Sondheim who was mentored by family friend Hammerstein.

 Technically the show dazzles with scenery gliding in and out, up and down, backwards and forwards without a helping hand in sight and only once did the sound of motors become apparent. The panels making up the back wall out on to the terrace of the von Trapp house looked a bit shaky at times but Robert Jones' set was a masterpiece of rapid, seamless scene changing with stage filling sets - we even had a growing mountain which involved five tons of lifts.

The lighting too, designed by Mark Henderson was always effective while the sound was clear, balanced and unobtrusive - all things which add to the enjoyment of a production. Sadly for the technicians though, when they get it right nobody notices apart from sad souls like me . . . who perhaps should get out more

I am no expert on the show but someone in the audience was - Jean Bayless, now 78, who was the first British Maria when The Sound of Music opened in the West End in 1961.

Her view: “Connie was wonderful. She brings out all the humour in the way she plays Maria. You believe in her. She was divine  - and the children were sensational.”

It was 49 years ago that Jean was governess to the von Trapp children at the Palace Theatre in the West End and she said: “It just brings back lovely memories.”

She admitted that she cried - a lot - during the show and she was not alone among those dabbing eyes during the regular arrival of sentimental bits but perhaps she was the only one watching two shows - one now and one half a century ago.

Three Marias: Jean Bayless (left) the first British Maria, Julie Andrews, Maria in the box-office record smashing film  and Connie Fisher, the latest Maria. Picture Adrian Jackson

There have been changes. She said: “They stand up a lot more than we did. I did Do-Re-Mi sitting down with the children around me and the Abbess sang Climb Every Mountain sitting down with my head on her lap and we didn't have the Germans and soldiers.”

Perhaps, she thought, in 1961 it was too close to a war that had ended 16 years earlier and memories may still have been too painful. "People thought perhaps it was not right".

Climbing the mountain and finding dreams hadn't changed though and she said: “The Abbess was just sensational”.

She was also taken once again with Captain von Trapp, perhaps old habits die hard, describing him as “gorgeous” which brought back another memory - Maria's first kiss which was her highlight of the current show. “We didn't have such a long kiss in my day”, she said somewhat wistfully.

Jean, who lives in Edgbaston, admits to enjoying the show more now than when she saw the current production in London. “It has really settled in now”.

And as a musical comedy star herself she was also full of praise for the orchestra under musical director Jonathan Gill.

Her verdict on the show. “It was wonderful.” And if anyone should know Jean should. If there are tickets left trust me, they won't be there for long. To 21-08-10.

Roger Clarke


I always find the facts and figures about touring shows fascinating with the miles of cable, number of lorries, tons of equipment and the like. If you want to know more about what is involved in The Sound of Music on the road check out the facts and figures about the show on:



How did they solve a problem like Maria in 1961 

The Sound of Music at half a crown a song


Meanwhile an echo from the valley . . . 


JUST how good is this smash hit Rodgers & Hammerstein musical which has started a six-week run in Brum? Well, Jean Bayless says it is wonderful, and she should know.

Who is Jean Bayliss? No less than the very first actress to play Maria on the West End stage in the 1960s, and she was in the stalls on Wednesday to see how Connie Fisher coped with the role she had filled with such distinction all those years ago.

After the performance Jean, now 78 and living in Edgbaston, told me: "Connie was wonderful and has a lot of humour in the way she plays Maria. What was the big moment of the show for me? That had to be her first kiss with Captain von Trapp. I didn't have such a long kiss in my day.

Postulant Maria arrives  fresh from Nonnberg Abbey to start work at the von Trapp estate as a governess to the Baron's seven children.

"As for the show itself, I enjoyed it better than when I saw it in London. It has really settled in now.

"I'm in love with Captain von Trapp (played by Michael Praed), the children were sensational and so was the Mother Abbess (Marilyn Hill Smith) and the orchestra."

Jean was also impressed with the scene late in the show when the von Trapp family are singing in a competition, and to help create the threatening atmosphere of the German threat to Austria armed storm troopers manned four of the Hippodrome boxes and huge swastikas were draped on either side of the stage.

This show really is a 'must see'. Bursting with emotion, colour, drama and great music. Connie seemed a touch nervous in the opening scene but was soon thrilling the audience singing with the seven von Trapp children, while Marilyn Hill Smith brought the first half to a stunning close with Climb Ev'ry Mountain.

As for Connie's humour, she has a brilliant scene where she has to chat to Baroness Schraeder (Jacinta Mulcahy), her mouth jammed with a chunk of cake.

A strong performance, too, from Martin Callaghan as Max Detweiler in a cracking show which gets a well-earned standing ovation.

Paul Marston 

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