It was a stroke of genius by John Frost and Opera Australia to invite Julie Andrews, who originated the role of Eliza Doolittle in the original 1956 Broadway production, to come to Australia to direct this recreation of that original Broadway production.
That decision alone insured that the world would take notice. Julie Andrews has remained a big star ever since, mainly due to her films, but many questioned whether she had the directorial skills to make a success of such a project. They need not have worried.
The diligence of the producers of the current production in securing the original Oliver Smith and Cecil Beaton set and costume designs, and the assistance of some of the original creatives who had worked on the original Broadway production has certainly paid off, ensuring that this new production is as close to the 1956 original as is humanly possible. But is the end result worth all the time and money expended, or does this production look like something preserved in aspic?
My Fair Lady is often referred to as the world’s ‘perfect musical’, and this meticulous recreation of the original production, now enjoying a triumphant return Sydney season, is a glorious demonstration of that assertion. Having seen the original JC Williamson production in Melbourne in 1959 and a good many other productions since, your reviewer is happy to report that it is worth every penny spent, and every hour of research.
From the very first notes of Frederick Loewe’s brilliantly evocative overture, given lush treatment here by Guy Simpson’s excellent orchestra, the show transports its audience into Edwardian London. Oliver Smith’s masterful setting immediately transports the audience to the Covent Garden Opera House where lavishly costumed opera-goers desperately try to avoid the rain, as they disperse after a performance.
It is in this scene that the flower girl, Eliza Doolittle (Anna O’Byrne), Professor Higgins (Charles Edwards) and Colonel Pickering (Tony Llewellyn-Jones) are introduced.
The settings with their soaring perspectives still look spectacular. The elegance and simplicity of the Ascot scene, and the double-revolve transition of Embassy ballroom still draw gasps and applause from the audience. The colourful costumes look as lavish as ever, even more so now, because in restoring the production, advances in technology have been embraced so that the sets and costumes are now more superbly lit than could have been imagined when they were first created.
The casting is impeccable, and the actors now have the advantage of state-of-the art sound so that every word of the brilliant dialogue and lyrics is crystal clear. Suave, elegant and handsome Charles Edwards is an attractive Henry Higgins, revelling in the brilliant dialogue, and extracting every laugh from the character’s outrageous misogyny.
He has a worthy adversary in Anna O’Byrne’s, flighty flower girl, Eliza Doolittle. Convincing as the cheeky cockney, funny in the lesson and Ascot scenes, then heartbreakingly beautiful at the Embassy Ball, O’Byrne’s transition from cockney to lady is a joy throughout, and Andrews has obviously left her room to stamp her own personality on the role. No disadvantage that her pure, crystalline voice is surprisingly reminiscent of Andrew’s own, especially in I Could Have Danced All Night.
But theirs are not the only performances to relish in this topline cast. Tony Llewellyn-Jones is delightfully idiosyncratic as Colonel Pickering, Deidre Rubenstein is a warm and caring Mrs Pierce, and Robyn Nevin brings an elegant presence as Mrs Higgins.
Reg Livermore who almost steals the show with his exuberant performance as Alfred P. Doolittle. He pulls out every trick in the trade to command attention in his two songs, With a Little Bit of Luck and Get Me to the Church on Time – against an enthusiastic ensemble pouring everything into Christopher Gattelli’s clever choreography. And the way he portrays Doolittle’s quick changes of tactics in the study scene as he tries to inveigle money from Higgins are total delight.
If you’ve never My Fair Lady on stage before, or like this reviewer, have seen many productions over the years, don’t miss this opportunity to see this miraculous reproduction. Then you’ll know why for the last 60 years, audiences all over the world, have regarded My Fair Lady as the world’s perfect musical.
My Fair Lady
Capitol Theatre, 13 Campbell Street, Haymarket (Sydney)
Performance: Sunday 27 August 2017 – 6.00pm
Season continues to 14 October 2017
Information and Bookings: www.myfairladymusical.com.au
Image: Anna O’Byrne as Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady – photo by Jeff Busby
Review: Bill Stephens OAM