As a celebration of last year’s 60th anniversary of the original Broadway production of My Fair Lady, this recreated staging was developed for the Sydney Opera House’s Joan Sutherland Theatre, with the first lady to play Eliza Doolittle befittingly at the helm, the indomitable Dame Julie Andrews. It feels like such a pitch perfect tribute it’s a wonder why we’re the lucky ones to receive it and not those who visit the Great White Way. But who’s complaining? This production is a treasure for fans of classic musical theatre.
Kicking off with its lengthy overture we’re instantly regaled by Guy Simpson’s elegantly conducted orchestra, and painted curtain as per Oliver Smith’s original set design. Yes, it’s true to say that modern methods have improved the way sets are put together to create smoother transitions and make bolder statements, but it’s surprising how well the design withstands the test of time. The forced perspective of Covent Garden, Professor Higgin’s lavish library and the Embassy ballroom all still impress. The only pity is that by putting this production on the stage of the cavernous Regent Theatre, a mask has had to be used to fill the space, resulting in a diorama-like effect with those sitting at the back of the theatre feeling like they’re peering inside a box. Nevertheless, what’s on show is as beautiful as a Tiffany’s shop window at Christmas.
This beauty is aided by Cecil Beaton’s original costume designs, which reach the pinnacle of their attractiveness in the renowned black and white tableau of the Ascot racecourse. Eliza also gets her share of lovely outfits, but whether it’s the cause of the distant viewing in the large theatre or the passage of time, ultimately her key costumes – the Ascot race dress and Embassy Ball gown – have less impact than expected.
The actors within the costumes however, provide all the impact you’d hope for. It’s clear that the benefit of having someone with such an intimate knowledge of the script directing the show has meant that multi-layered levels of nuance have been achieved in the performances. Dame Andrews knows how to hold a moment and draw in your focus. Never have I seen the revelation of ‘The Rain in Spain’ moment played with such scintillating progress and expansion. It’s one of many large and small moments that are measured absolutely perfectly in this production.
As the cockney flower-seller seeking to better herself Anna O’Byrne does Dame Andrews’ justice. With an upper-class tone that matches Andrews’ perfectly, O’Byrne’s vocals are delightfully pure and crisp, while her cockney brogue is broader and more truthful than the usual ‘awright guvnor’ EastEnders act that often besieges the role. O’Byrne demonstrates the perfect balance of strength, vulnerability and gusto that Eliza requires.
British actor Charles Edwards fills the role of Professor Henry Higgins with just the right amount of charm to make the repugnant character likable enough that you aren’t entirely disappointed that Eliza eventually gives in to his obnoxious behaviour. Not that Edwards pulls back from landing some of the more hideous misogynistic comments that Higgins blithely spews about Eliza. It’s a performance that justifies importing a leading man in from the mother country.
The supporting roles are also filled with elegant performances. Robin Nevin demonstrates her typical expertise and precise comic timing in the graceful role of Mrs Higgins. Reg Livermore is wonderfully mischievous as Alfred P. Doolittle, Eliza’s drunken father, providing the character with just enough roguish charm to make his irresponsibility endearing. While Tony Llewellyn-Jones as linguist and gambling man Colonel Pickering, gives an energetic and jovial portrayal.
Ensemble performances are uniformly strong, with vocal harmonies particularly well defined and highlighted by Michael Waters’ sound design, which is clear as a bell but perhaps a bit too much in favour of vocalists over the orchestra which often makes them sound like a recording.
Christopher Gattelli’s choreography is effective and entirely reflective of the 1956 style, but is basic by today’s standards. For the most part, it’s what’s known in the biz as ‘chorey for movers’.
This isn’t a musical for everyone, it’s very long and old-fashioned, or should I say ‘vintage’ in style, but with the added benefit of Julie Andrews’ many years of acting to sharpen the characterisations to a pin point, it’s close to being a definitive version of a Broadway classic. If you’re a fan or scholar of musical theatre, then you’ll appreciate the reverence and care that has gone into this production that feels something like attending the opening of a time-capsule.