In honour of My Fair Lady’s 60th Anniversary, Opera Australia and John Frost have brought on board none other than Dame Julie Andrews, the original Eliza Doolittle herself, to helm their latest production.
Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Lowe’s My Fair Lady debuted on Broadway in 1956, and starred Andrews as Eliza (the role that skyrocketed her to stardom) and Rex Harrison as Professor Henry Higgins. It went on to become Broadway’s longest running musical, securing a whopping 2,717 shows.
This year, in honour of its anniversary, Andrews and team have put together a nostalgic, respectful recreation of the original production.
Eliza, a feisty but beautiful street urchin, sells flowers on the street. She is taken on as a pupil by Henry Higgins, a Professor of the English language, who bets within six months he could pass her off as a duchess. So begins Eliza’s transformation – through Higgins’ questionable bullying – from dirty bud to glistening bloom.
This really is the Henry Higgins Show. British actor Alex Jennings’ performance is the highlight of the night. He has clarity of character, and his comic timing is unparalleled. Jennings has a charisma that, despite Higgins’ vile, misogynistic tendencies, wins us over instantaneously. He’s languorous and charming, and he brings a welcomed tenderness to the Professor.
Anna O’Byrne as Eliza is lovely, but a little lacklustre. It must be a difficult task to play such an iconic role, let alone be directed by the woman who made it iconic. O’Byrne is graceful, and her singing voice is beautiful (I Could Have Danced All Night was sung to absolute perfection) but she doesn’t quite dazzle.
Reg Livermore is the most delightful weasel as Eliza’s father Alfred P. Doolittle. His With A Little Bit of Luck had the audience smiling throughout with its infectious energy and mischievousness. Livermore certainly tries his best to scene steal his way through the show, and if it weren’t for Jennings he might well succeed – he’s undoubtedly the crowd favourite.
In her all-too-brief cameo appearances as Mrs Higgins, Robyn Nevin is sublime. She’s poised and graceful, and simply made for that spectacular feathered hat.
The supporting cast is also fantastic. As Eliza’s fellow street dwellers they are dynamic and rambunctious, and as Ascot regulars they’re articulated and polished. Throughout, the vocals are superb.
The unsung hero of this production is the set. Designer Rosaria Sinsi drew inspiration from the original set by Oliver Smith, but has given it a contemporary facelift. It’s beautifully detailed and visually stunning, and adding devices like the revolve allows the whole production to move at a fair lick.
Not to be forgotten are the sumptuous costumes, which are recreations of Cecil Beaton’s designs used in the original Broadway production. Beaton’s assistant John David Ridge has brought them lovingly to life, and his creations will delight even the sternest audience member.
The show does seem dated by today’s standards, but this production has to be commended for doing what it said it was going to – create a true, faithful rendition of the original. It’s long (the first half runs at over two hours) but it will please the traditionalists.
Alana Kaye – Theatre Now