When Opera Australia and John Frost’s production of My Fair Lady directed by Julie Andrews played in Sydney late last year it sold more tickets than any other show in the history of the Sydney Opera House.
The production moved to Melbourne’s Regent Theatre this week lock, stock and barrel (with only one major cast change), and it’s easy to see why My Fair Lady still has such a hold over audiences. For fans of musicals, My Fair Lady is brilliant confection of memorable songs, super-smart and witty lyrics and an irresistible plot – Henry Higgins, a phonetics professor, picks up Eliza Doolittle, the coarse Covent Garden flower seller, and within six months passes her off to high society as a princess.
The Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe musical adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s 1913 play Pygmalion celebrated its 60th anniversary and the debut of Andrews as Eliza. This production comes with the original Oliver Smith set and Cecil Beaton costume designs, making it a slightly more lavish production than Opera Australia’s previous 2008 production. That was directed by Stuart Maunder and featured Reg Livermore as Henry Higgins and Taryn Fiebig as Eliza.
Now Livermore is back but in the smaller, more comfortable fit as Eliza’s deadbeat, but thoroughly likeable dad, Alfred Doolittle. Livermore’s impeccable comic timing as the Cockney opportunist makes his version of With a Little bit of Luck and I’m Getting Married in the Morning among the show’s highlights.
Livermore, along with Robyn Nevin as Higgins’ mother, Mark Vincent as Freddy Eynsford-Hill, David Whitney as Karpathy, Tony Llewellyn-Jones as Colonel Pickering and Deidre Rubenstein as Mrs Pearce, are major strengths of this production. This principal cast “gets it”, as Higgins might say; they all ground their (mostly) comic characters in the reality of their world.
But the show lives and dies by its Eliza and Higgins, and as Ben Neutze wrote in his review of the Sydney season, soprano Anna O’Byrne “is everything you could hope” for in the role of Eliza which she is now playing in Melbourne. He continued:
Eliza must undergo a total transformation from tough, impoverished flower girl to a beautifully spoken, well-mannered young woman, who finds herself just as lost in her new skin as the old. O’Byrne completes that transformation perfectly in both voice and physicality, but Eliza’s drive — for the dignity and respect that’s owed to her — remains constant throughout.
And while she has a gorgeous soprano, her focus is much more on characterisation than beautiful singing. O’Byrne is simply radiant, and almost everything in her performance is perfectly judged — she’s funny, moving, and resilient.
Melbourne audiences are the first to see Henry Higgins played by British actor Charles Edwards. I didn’t see Alex Jennings (a fellow Brit) in the role in the Sydney season, but Edwards is dazzling.
We are used to seeing Higgins played as an uptight snob of a disciplinarian. Edwards’ Higgins is still a snob, but he’s playful and waggish. His body language is loose and louche. He’s arrogant and exasperating, but whether he’s bantering with Pickering or berating Eliza, he’s an impossible show-off who wants desperately to impress whoever is in his orbit. And you believe that he might eventually find Eliza almost as attractive as he finds himself.