If you ever wanted to step back in time to the golden age of Broadway, now’s your chance, because Opera Australia and John Frost’s My Fair Lady is about as close as it comes. This is a nostalgic, faithful and lovingly-recreated production that will have musical theatre fans coming back for more.
My Fair Lady debuted on Broadway in 1956, when musical theatre really hit its stride; storylines were rich and complex, songs were used to advance the plot and dance also played a narrative role. Taking its story from George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, My Fair Lady follows cocky English language Professor, Henry Higgins, who bets his colleague, Colonel Pickering, that he can pass off a lowly, cockney flower seller (Eliza Doolittle) for a duchess at a high society ball, simply by teaching her how to speak. Cue the much loved classics: ‘Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?’, ‘The Rain in Spain’, ‘I Could Have Danced All Night’ and ‘Get Me to the Church On Time’.
In honour of My Fair Lady’s 60th Anniversary, Frost and Opera Australia have recruited the original Eliza Doolittle, Dame Julie Andrews, to direct this landmark production. No doubt drawing on her own experiences on stage back in 1956, Andrews’ direction does not stray far from the book, although there are some lovely touches cut from early productions (due to space and logistics) which the modern stage is happy to accommodate.
The set is certainly one of the stars of this show. Based on the original 1956 design by Oliver Smith, Rosaria Sinsi has delivered a set worthy of the Sydney Opera House stage, full of delightful detail and a grandness opera audiences expect. In the 50s and 60s, painted backdrops were the theatrical device of choice, and they make a triumphant return in this revival. But they are accompanied by more up-to-date touches, like seamless revolving stages and inset lighting.
The costumes, too, are recreations of those used in the original Broadway production, designed then by Cecil Beaton, and now by Beaton’s assistant, John David Ridge. They are perfect in their period detail, and give a lovely sense of realism to the show. For the female characters in particular, Beaton’s designs are fanciful, delicate and lavish.
The cast is led by UK actor, Alex Jennings, who is perfect for the role of Henry Higgins. His expansive, grand gestures are practised and convincing, and he confidently delivers the speak-sing the role demands.
Aussie songbird, Anna O’Byrne, takes on the iconic role of Eliza Doolittle. While she sounds just like a young Andrews, she is missing something of the ineffable quality the latter brought to the stage and screen. In group scenes, despite her dazzling costumes, O’Byrne does not draw the eye the way other starlets have done in the role. But she handles herself assuredly in what could have been quite an intimidating situation – being directed in the role the director herself made so famous.
As Colonel Pickering, Tony Llwellyn-Jones is charming, but sadly spent much of the show side-on, meaning half the audience missed the majority of his characterisation. Deidre Rubenstein, as Mrs Pearce, has a rich, musical voice, although I had hoped to see a little more comedy in her performance. But this may be a modern interpretation of the character and not in keeping with the anniversary production.
Reg Livermore (Alfred P. Doolittle) is a crowd favourite and Robin Nevin, as Mrs Higgins, is devine (if only she were in more scenes). Rounding out the headline cast is former Australia’s Got Talent winner, Mark Vincent. His velvety tenor is a delight to the ears, and he manages himself on the stage well, despite his relative inexperience.
Supporting the leads is an ensemble of enthusiastic singers and dancers, who bring genuine life to the London streets. As you would expect from an Opera Australia production, the singing is lustrous. Under the musical direction of Guy Simpson, Lerner and Lowe’s familiar tunes are given a fullness that is sometimes lacking in modern musical theatre.
Christopher Gattelli’s choreography is measured and in keeping with the style of the production. Skirts twirl and men leap, but, as was appropriate for the time, the majority of the dancing is done in pairs. The Embassy Ball is a real highlight, but the Ascot Gavotte was my favourite of the movement-driven scenes.
It is difficult to be critical of a show that draws so much from the past; elements that may seem dated to today’s audience are in fact true to the original and should be appreciated as faithful reproductions. That said, there is very little to fault.
This show will impress both older audiences and scholars of the genre. For those who like their theatre with a little more edge… well, you’ll certainly appreciate the artistry.
The 60th Anniversary production of My Fair Lady is playing at the Sydney Opera House until 5th November. For tickets head here
The reviewer attended the performance on Wednesday 7th September.
Photo credit: Nathan Atkins