Connie Fisher: Problem solved

She has leapt into the limelight with a vivacity that has conquered the hearts of the most cynical critics BY NEIL NORMAN
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There is a certain irony in realising that Connie Fisher, the overnight toast of London for her triumph in The Sound of Music, doesn't get everything right.

"Apparently The Sound of Music never has good reviews," she said recently. "So that's a relief. No one will be expecting one."

I trust the fact that the critics have been unanimous in heaping praise on the show and her performance will not put her off her stride. "She is the first real Maria I've seen," trilled Nicholas de Jongh. Quentin Letts went even further: "She's as natural and unsugared and wholesome as one of those pots of vegan yoghurt. Just listening to her makes you feel healthy."

And so it goes on.

The 23-year-old musical actress, who ran the gauntlet of the television reality audition show How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?, has leapt into the limelight with a vivacity that has conquered the hearts and minds of the most cynical critics.

Fisher's success adds up to more than a set of star-is-born clichés. By exposing herself to the potential humiliation by appearing in the eight episodes of Maria she had won over the audience before she took the stage; thus the fee-paying members of the public can arrive at the London Palladium safe in the knowledge that they are going to get what they paid for - in many cases, what they voted for. This is theatrical risk-management of the highest order.

Moreover, Fisher is playing the lead in a musical that has been lampooned and lambasted on many levels, yet still retains an extraordinary public following. The combination of nuns and Nazis, sugar-clad songs and cute kids is as camp as a row of tents, nourishing events like "Singalong-A-Sound of Music", which is the alternative night out for those tiring of The Rocky Horror Show.

Andrew Lloyd Webber's decision to revive Rodgers and Hammerstein's musical and then make an event of the casting was tremendously original. In spite of the naysayers who claimed that How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria? was little more than another example of sadistic voyeur television, the sheer strangeness of the enterprise guaranteed an audience from the start. When it became clear that Andrew Lloyd Webber was entirely serious in his enterprise - in spite of some attempts to suggest otherwise - the viewing figures increased.

Fisher was a favourite from the start. She was the right age, had the requisite appearance - one part tomboy, one part girl-next-door and one part showgirl - and was evidently the most professional of the participants. Plus, she really could put across a song. While she may not have been the best singer on the show she clearly had all the correct bits in place for the Maria package. Above all, she has likeability. The big, toothy smile, the natural manner, the unintimidating prettiness - all contribute to the rightness of her casting.

She is also vulnerable. While she was consistent in her singing - especially her version of Lulu's "Shout!" and "The Lonely Goatherd" - she was not altogether unchallenged when it came to the assault course. It was her slightly less than glowing performance on ropes and rocks that may led to doubts about her stamina to sustain eight shows a week.

Lloyd Webber insists that a back-up is normal, however. Sarah Brightman only ever did six shows for The Phantom of the Opera and Elaine Paige did only six for Evita. The casting of Emma Williams as Fisher's shadow during the week, taking over for a couple of performances, was standard practice. When Williams walked out of the production, Fisher, who had made no bones about wanting to perform all eight shows a week, got her wish.

The final irony is that Emma Williams had played Truly Scrumptious in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, a role for which Fisher, fresh out of Mountview Theatre School, had auditioned and failed to win.

"Of course I want to do all eight shows," said Fisher. "Of course there will be days when you get vocally tired. I just feel that everyone that voted me in, I want them to come to the theatre to see the person they voted in - to see the girl off the telly."

The girl "off the telly" was born in Lisburn, Northern Ireland, in 1985. Initially one of twins, her brother died a few hours after his birth. Her father was a major in the Army Signals Corp. The family moved to Blandford in Dorset where they lived until she was six. They then moved to her grandparents' farm in Haverfordwest, Pembrokeshire, where she attended Hayscastle Junior School. From there she went on to Sir Thomas Picton School where she was nicknamed Paperboy. She also learned to speak Welsh and was encouraged by her grandmother to compete in eisteddfods.

Following several musical competitions in Wales and appearances in amateur productions, Fisher won a full scholarship to the Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts from where she graduated in 2005 with a first-class BA Hons in musical theatre.

In between the personal successes, there were personal upheavals. Her father had an affair and left home when Fisher was 17, leaving her in the care of her mother and grandmother. Although she still keeps in touch with him it is clear that she is closest to the women in her life.

With her boyfriend Neil who, with more irony, is also in the Signals Corp, she will spend weekends at "Nanna Dots" climbing evr'y mountain in the area with her family dog, Ben. Clearly, the hills are just a little more alive for her now.

"Neil is my own rock," she said recently. "He's in the Signals. He's been to Iraq a couple of times and no doubt he'll go again. He used to send me emails saying that a bomb had just landed in the camp, but he's so chilled and steady that nothing freaks him out. My whole life has changed on the outside since I landed the role of Maria in The Sound of Music, but we haven't changed. I can come home and always be his Connie."

Her first professional engagement was at Milford Haven Torch Theatre, Christmas 2005, where she played Princess Samina in Aladdin and then took the £1,000 cash prize and the Gower Trophy in the final of the 2006 Welsh Musical Theatre Young Singer of the Year Competition, held at Swansea Grand Theatre.

Intriguingly, she auditioned for several Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals, narrowly missing out on the starring role as Christine in The Phantom of the Opera in spite of being just out of Mountview.

She was also a serious contender for other Lloyd Webber productions The Woman In White and Evita; for the latter she was recalled three times for the part of Juan Peron's mistress. Fisher also made it to the final stages for a leading part in Abba show Mamma Mia! and the Bad Girls musical, and was down to the final three for the role of Truly Scrumptious in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

Her co-star in The Sound of Music, Lesley Garrett, who plays the Mother Superior, found her initial concerns swept away when she met Fisher. "Like the rest of the cast, or even the entire profession, I was worried about the idea of casting a musical via reality TV," she said. "But immediately I met Connie - the day before the TV finale - I knew I'd been proved wrong. Anyway, she's had proper training and put in years of effort already. We have to accept that this is another, and justifiable, way of discovering talent. She's delightful, a wonderful actress, a very good singer and behaves with complete dedication, as if she's been a professional for years."

Even in the short time that she has been unemployed as an actress, she has tasted the downside of the profession. She has worked as a waitress at Pizza Express and then in the living hell of telesales, earning £150 per week.

Perhaps the most astonishing aspect of Fisher's success is that she has managed to lay the ghost of Julie Andrews with whom the role of Maria was indelibly linked. In spite of having a vocal similarity to her musical heroine, Fisher never attempts an impersonation. She has made the role entirely her own, refreshing the part that others (including Petula Clark in the last London revival) failed to reach.

It is clearly a role that she was born to play and, given the huge gamble played by Lloyd Webber, has acquitted herself with flying colours. Of course, Lloyd Webber was aware of her talent and suitability for the role and clearly encouraged her throughout the series. But the decision was made by the public. And even after she won the show and the role, her pathway to her first-night triumph has not been easy.

The Emma Williams business might have thrown a spanner in the works of a lesser personality; so, too, might the abrupt and somewhat late departure of Simon Shepherd, the actor playing Captain Von Trapp, after two previews. He was replaced by Alexander Hanson and Fisher had to rehearse hard to make up for the musical differences of her leading men.

"I just had to be as versatile and pliable as I could be," she said, "to mould around each new character, because the way Alex did it was different to the way Simon did it."

And, while the reviews have been resoundingly good, much of her thunder has been stolen by the youngest member of the cast, seven year-old Adrianna Bertola who plays the youngest of the Von Trapp children, Gretl.

Even so, Fisher's professionalism and good humour emerged in her post-first night comments: "Adrianna is remarkable. She never forgets her lines. I don't know what she's on, but I want some of it."

The way things are going, Fisher could develop a nice sideline in bottling her own dynamic essence.

A Life in Brief

BORN 1985, Lisburn, Northern Ireland

EDUCATION Hayscastle Junior School, Sir Thomas Picton School. Haverfordwest Operatic Society and the National Youth Theatre (1999-2002). Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts, BA Hons (2005) in musical theatre.

CAREER Television appearances on Star for a Night aged 16; Just Up Your Street, and BBC Children in Need. First professional appearance at Milford Haven Torch Theatre, Christmas 2005, as Princess Samina in Aladdin. Won a £1,000 cash prize and the Gower Trophy in the final of the 2006 Welsh Musical Theatre Young Singer of the Year Competition, held at Swansea Grand Theatre.

SHE SAYS "I am the first to admit I'm not a looker. And I'm lucky the audience could see beyond that - that Maria didn't need to be beautiful."

THEY SAY "She has none of the cool antiseptic vitality of Julie Andrews's over-refined Maria." - Nicholas de Jongh, theatre critic

"I've found my Maria in Connie Fisher, and that's good enough for me." - Andrew Lloyd Webber