Left – Anna O' Byrne and Alex Jennings. Photos – Jeff Busby
'It's obvious that any musical play is the sum total of the creative efforts of numerous people, but someone, one clever person, has to come up with the idea' – so said notable performing arts historian Frank Van Straten. In the case of My Fair Lady that clever person was Gabriel Pascal, the Hungarian film producer who hatched the idea of turning George Bernard Shaw's 'Pygmalion' into a musical. In 1956 – five years after Pascal's original idea, his dream became a reality. My Fair Lady took to the stage in the New York 'Mark Hellinger Theatre' on March 15 and went on to become one of the great triumphs of American musical theatre. Sadly, Pascal who had passed away in 1954 did not get to witness this triumph.
Opera Australia's 60th anniversary revival of My Fair Lady under the direction of Dame Julie Andrews – the original Eliza and also the last living thread of DNA to the original production – is a seamless audial, visual and comic delight which far exceeded my expectations. Granted, it takes a moment or two to get used to the amplification and strangeness of experiencing musical theatre at the Sydney Opera House, not to mention the fact that there wasn't an empty seat in the house – a rare occurrence indeed. The audience anticipation and excitement was palpable and the cast and crew managed to deliver a high energy show, with outstanding performances all round. Wonderful acting and singing of well loved tunes propelled the drama forward for an evening of deliciously light and uplifting entertainment.
Anna O' Byrne is stunning in the title role of Eliza Doolittle. A singer in possession of a versatile voice, O'Byrne skilfully adapts the different colours of her vocal palette to the needs of the character's development. She initially uses a broad and nasally 'Broadway' tone for 'Eliza the flower girl', but later sings in a sweet soprano for 'Eliza the lady'. Her acting is faultless and every authentic gesture and facial expression evokes an empathetic response. Some highlights were the joyous rendition of 'I could have danced all night' and her 'move your bloomin' arse' outburst at the races.
Alex Jennings as Henry Higgins is the calm and well mannered antidote to the savage unsophistication of the cockney flower girl. Played with great expertize, Jennings's Higgins is a likeable, albeit insensitive character whose articulation of the English language is a delight to hear. His singing is rather more spoken than sung, although perfectly adequate and convincing. Jennings also cuts a handsome – although eccentric figure – and there is quite some chemistry apparent between Eliza and Higgins which adds a lot to the overall success of the show. Higgins's dithering sidekick played by Tony Llewellyn Jones portrays a charmingly tentative old fellow and the comic banter between Jones and Jennings's respective characters is brilliant.
One of Australia's stage favourites, the seventy-seven year old Reg Livermore plays Alfred Doolittle – Eliza's drunken and self serving father. Livermore commands the stage with great energy and zest, authentic 'drunk' acting, and impeccable comedy to conjure up a character you love and loathe simultaneously. The showstopper 'I'm getting married in the morning' was a highlight of the evening.
Mark Vincent plays the lack lustre and rather two dimensional Freddy who does nothing but mope around after Eliza. He sings 'On the street where you live' with charm and beauty of tone although he appears to be thinking about technique. There is also a slight muting of some of the higher notes before they are allowed to release into their full bodied beauty which is a shame.
Robyn Nevin as Henry's unflappable mother is wonderful. In the hands of this great actress, Mrs Higgins evokes charm, aplomb and humour whilst Higgins's maid – played by Deirdre Rubenstein – is a confident and believable Mrs Pearce who provides the sensible touch amongst the shenanigans. David Whitney as the oily Zoltan Karpathy from Budapest is a humorous addition to the ball scene.
The changing set design and scenery all work amazingly well and considering the chaos that must take place back stage between scene changes, these smooth transitions are quite miraculous. The use of a car on stage is cute and a welcome addition to this production. Under the baton of musical director Guy Simpson, the orchestra lovingly brings to life the timeless and beautiful tunes of Loewe's score. Splendid too are the ensemble singers and dancers and how great to see them properly acknowledged in the program for a change. The costume recreation work of John David Ridge is exquisite in its attention to detail and the black and white costumes of the Ascot scene and Eliza's ball gown are unforgettable. Mezzo soprano Vanessa Lewis and her fellow servants in the Higgins's household look particularly charming in their woollen dressing gowns and caps.
This production is a great success and a testament to the vision of the artists involved. The determination of those in charge to replicate the original production has paid off and Julie Andrew's words 'if it ain't broke don't fix it' couldn't have been truer. The result is a totally fresh and relevant piece of theatre with high energy performances, lovely singing, fantastic acting, memorable tunes and all directed by the living legend that is Dame Julie Andrews – Sydney is lucky indeed to host this slice of musical theatre history! Pascal would have been proud.
Opera Australia and John Frost present
MY FAIR LADY
Lerner and Loewe
Directed by Julie Andrews
Venue: Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House
Dates: from August 30, 2016
Tickets: from $89.90
Bookings: myfairladymusical.com.au | 02 9318 8200
Venue: Lyric Theatre QPAC
Dates: from March 12, 2017 (tickets on sale October 2016)
Venue: Regent Theatre
Dates: from May 11, 2017 (tickets on sale October 2016)