It was in 1956 when Broadway’s Mark Hellinger Theatre became home to the world premiere production of My Fair Lady. With Alan Jay Lerner as book writer and lyricist and Frederick Loewe its composer, the show quickly became an astonishing success, going on to run for a record-breaking 2,717 performances. It continues to be regarded as one of the great musicals of Broadway’s golden age.

Sixty years on, Opera Australia and John Frost have joined forces to mark this significant anniversary for My Fair Lady with a production that’s as physically faithful to Learner and Loewe’s 1956 staging as is conceivably possible. Working with John David Ridge, long-time assistant of original costume designer Cecil Beaton, and Rosaria Sinisi, former student and assistant of original set designer Oliver Smith, they’ve spent years bringing together a production that pays homage to the look and feel as that first seen by New York City audiences. Even the artwork used to promote this production was what was created for the original Broadway production by American caricaturist Al Hirschfeld.

At the helm of the 60th anniversary production of My Fair Lady is Dame Julie Andrews who, among her myriad of stage and screen credits over seven decades, originated the iconic role of Eliza Doolittle on Broadway in 1956. Handpicked by Andrews to play Doolittle in Sydney was Anna O’Byrne (best known to Australian audiences for her portrayal of Christine Daaé in the Phantom of the Opera sequel, Love Never Dies). Playing Henry Higgins is English actor, Alex Jennings, who’s won three prestigious Laurence Olivier Awards for his work on the stage, with one of those gongs awarded for his portrayal of Higgins in My Fair Lady on London’s West End in 2003.

Completing the impressive principal cast are Reg Livermore (as Alfred P. Doolittle), Robyn Nevin (Mrs Higgins), Mark Vincent (as Freddy Eynsford-Hill), Tony Llewellyn-Jones (as Colonel Pickering) and Deidre Rubenstein (as Mrs Pearce).

Based on the 1912 play by Irish playwright, George Bernard Shaw, Pygmalion, the setting for the musical is the London of the time. It tells the story of Higgins, a phonetics professor, who makes a bet with retired British officer and linguist, Colonel Pickering, that he can take the highly impressionable Cockney flower girl, Doolittle, and transform her into a ‘respectable’ woman who could pass for a duchess, simply by requiring her to engage in lessons on phonetics to ensure her perfect pronunciation of every word in the English language. Higgins has a healthy ego and his motivation is to highlight his own brilliance.

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Anna O’Byrne and Alex Jennings in My Fair Lady (Photo by Jeff Busby)

Ultimately, Higgins succeeds in his mission to create in Doolittle a woman of great aesthetic appeal to the higher echelons of Edwardian England. He also (unknowingly) brings out a woman of far greater strength of character than he could’ve ever imagined.

As Doolittle, O’Byrne is remarkable, quickly reinforcing why she was Andrews’ own choice for the challenging role. As Doolittle pre-makeover, she’s spirited and feisty, and convinces as a woman determined to do what she feels she needs in order to be able to work in a flower store. A standout highlight early in the show comes in the form of O’Byrne’s gutsy performance of ‘Just you wait’, Doolittle’s response to the repugnant treatment she receives at Higgins’ hands from the time she agrees to take part in his experiment. Her performance makes it easy to believe her character’s struggle to correctly pronounce English words is actually genuine, and therefore that her eventual ability to so eloquently say, ‘The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain’, is the result of extensive lessons in speech. Vocally, O’Byrne is in wonderful form, her gorgeous soprano ensuring each of her sung moments is as sweet as it should be.

As the strong but essentially kind Pickering, Tony Llewellyn-Jones also convinces. While he’s partaken in the bet and is regarded a strongly earnest character, his behaviour towards Doolittle, that does actually extend to some genuine respect, sharply contrasts the tone of her treatment by Higgins. It’s certainly not hard to imagine why she’d be able to take more inspiration in the form of life lessons on behaviour from Pickering.

Playing Mrs Higgins, the professor’s mother, Nevin is an absolute delight from her first appearance. One of Australia’s finest stage actors, Nevins’ performance is as polished as the lady she portrays, and she fortunately has a sufficient number of opportunities to demonstrate her impeccable comedic timing. But she also has the chance to shine in one of the show’s most important moments, when a confrontation between Doolittle and Higgins occurs at her residence. Her unequivocal condemnation of her son’s disrespectful behaviour towards Doolittle is enormously satisfying.

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Anna O’Byrne, Robyn Nevin and Alex Jennings in My Fair Lady (Photo by Jeff Busby)

Livermore, another of Australia’s finest, further adds to the cast in his delivery of Alfred P. Doolittle, the Cockney rubbish collector who’s obviously more than a little fond of a drink. Also lending considerable comedic ability to his characterisation, Livermore’s is, again, the fine performance of a seasoned actor.

While Rubenstein and Vincent have fleeting opportunities to shine (Rubenstein especially so), each actor is a valuable asset to the high calibre principal cast. Notably, as the young upper class man unashamedly infatuated with Doolittle, Vincent’s tenor allows him to make his mark with his performance of ‘On the street where you live’.

And, finally, there’s Jennings as Professor Higgins. It’s said that when casting the original production, Lerner and Loewe wanted to cast a ‘classical actor of gravitas’. With that in mind, it’s a fair conclusion the show’s creators would approve of stage veteran Jennings’ casting. His Higgins is appropriately pompous and outrageously arrogant, but speaks with such eloquence that he’s utterly perfect for a master of phonetics. There’s some great physicality in his characterisation too, best evidenced in ‘The Rain in Spain’.

Of course, contemporary audiences will likely look at Higgins and find themselves repelled by the exercise he undertakes – trying to ‘create’ a socially acceptable woman, showing Doolittle the utmost disrespect and essentially treating her as a sideshow act. The misogyny in his behaviour, as well as in the dialogue and song lyrics, is as clear as day. But is it there to be laughed along with, or to be mocked? Surely, at least in respect of ‘Why can’t a woman be more like a man?’, the answer must be the latter. Higgins is indeed outrageous.

However, regardless of Lerner’s and Loewe’s intention, we’re not prevented from looking and examining the narrative from the perspective of a 21st century audience. And so while some may argue that the story promotes social attitudes and conventions strongly eschewed today, surely we are grown up enough to look at this show as an important milestone in the timeline of musical theatre and express disdain for those themes while recognising its enduring merits in the form of excellent musical compositions?

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The cast of My Fair Lady (Photo by Jeff Busby)

Visually, this production is worthy of praise. Smith’s designs of the exterior of London’s Covent Garden, Henry Higgins’ Georgian townhouse and the embassy ballroom, among others, have been spectacularly resurrected in the anniversary production. Similarly, the costumes based on Beaton’s 1956 designs are beautiful. Coupled with Christopher Gattelli’s choreographic choices, the race meeting scene, which includes ‘Ascot Gavotte’, is a moment of monochromatic splendour. Visually, this production distinctly feels as though it’s something of another time.

That feeling is conjured by the soundscape too. When My Fair Lady first appeared on Broadway, an orchestra comprising 32 players performed live each night. Here, we’re treated to precisely the same experience, under the expert musical direction of Guy Simpson. Having the opportunity to hear such a strong group of players perform the overture on its own is extremely satisfying.

The 60th anniversary production of My Fair Lady is a faithful and adeptly performed tribute to a work significant in the history of musical theatre. Die hard fans of this classic likely won’t be disappointed.

My Fair Lady plays the Joan Sutherland Theatre at the Sydney Opera House before seasons in Brisbane and Melbourne. For more information, click here

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