Loverly lady acclaim

My Fair Lady (Opera Australia and John Frost)

QPAC, Lyric Theatre

March 19 – April 30

Since its 1956 Broadway debut to critical acclaim, Lerner and Loewe’s musical theatre classic, “My Fair Lady” has captured audience imaginations through a popular film version and numerous revivals, including the 60th anniversary production collaboration between the Frost company and Opera Australia, directed by its original Broadway (and later London) star, Dame Julie Andrews. And it is entirely appropriate that opening night of the oft-described perfect musical is met by applause of acclamation, not only in recognition of Andrews’ entry into the Lyric Theatre but as a deserving final ovation.

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Based on George Bernard Shaw’s 1913 play “Pygmalion”, the beloved musical tells the tale of a Cockney Covent Garden flower girl named Eliza Doolittle (Anna O’Byrne) who takes speech lessons from the brilliant but demanding phoneticist Henry Higgins (Charles Edwards) so that she may pass as a lady fit to work in a flower shop and be presentable in the high society of Edwardian London. The culture clash leads to much witty dialogue; indeed, under Andrews’ direction the production elicits much humour in what is a faithful reconstruction of the original, drawing on elements of the original set designs and costumes.

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There is an immaculate attention to detail in the show’s aesthetics, including an impressive symmetry between Cecil Beaton’s costumes and Oliver Smith’s sensational set of revolves, high ceilings and delicately painted backdrops the add depth and detail. From the beauty of the black and white Ascot scene where characters have the poise of Parisian boutique mannequins thanks to Christopher Gattelli’s impeccable choreography, to the pretty pastels of the Embassy Ball which serves as Eliza’s introduction to proper society, everything is superb. Authenticity to the original means more curtain closes and set change blackouts than what is now the norm, which slows things down, however, when the stage is transformed for the ball scene before audience eyes, it is a moment worthy of the resulting applause.

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The show also features an absolutely stellar cast. O’Byrne easily takes Eliza from squawking squashed cabbage leaf to being stylish and smart as paint, capturing with equal aplomb both her cockney and later polished accents and showing a charisma and flair for comedy as the only person who cheers on a horse at Ascot, becoming fully engulfed in the hysteria of the race.

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Edwards makes the snobbish academic Higgins’s disinterest in people almost endearing as the bumbling, ineffectual romantic lead delivers many a foot-in-mouth moment in his obvious inexperience with women. And equally impressive are the supporting cast which includes the legendary Reg Livermore as Eliza’s dustman father, Tony Llewellen-Jones as the compassionate Colonel Pickering, with whom Higgens makes bet that he can transform Eliza and grand dame of Australian theatre Robyn Nevin as Higgens’ mother, at once composed and comical in her astute advice to her son.

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Also of merit is the orchestration the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra, under musical theatre maestro Guy Simpson, which anchors the production, setting the scene from the opening minutes of the overture and continuing in creation of a sense of nostalgia through its diverse range of tunes.

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There is a vaudevillian appeal to many numbers, including Livermore’s completely cockney ‘With a Little Bit o’ Luck’, long for a lack of responsibility. And when he leads the ensemble in ‘Get Me to the Church on Time’ as plea to his friends not to let his drunken merriment affect his need to be prompt to his own wedding, it is one of the show’s standout numbers, joyous in its full scale celebration of song and dance.

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O’Byrne is also expert in delivery of her eclectic numbers, from the feisty frustration of ‘Just You Wait’, in which she dreams of different ways to kill Higgins, from sickness to drowning to a firing squad, to the glorious soar of ‘I Could Have Dance All Night’, which showcases her operatically trained soprano sound as Eliza floats ahigh after a major breakthrough in her linguistics lessons. And Mark Vincent’s moving, emotional declaration of love to Eliza as socialite suitor Freddy Eynsford-Hill is captivating in the simplicity of its splendour.

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Everything about the show is absolutely loverly (as Eliza would say) and although it is long, this “My Fair Lady” is a first-rate revival, sure to engage long-time and fresh fans alike with its charming comedy, stunning aesthetics and masterful musicality. And it is certainly easy to understand how in its opening Australian season the production sold more tickets than any other in the history of the Sydney Opera House.

Photos c/o – Jeff Busby

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