Stepping into Julie Andrews’ shoes as Eliza Doolittle is a tough task for any actor — Eliza is the role which launched Andrews to stardom 60 years ago, and it’s a massive ask, both vocally and dramatically.
Stepping into Andrews’ shoes in a production directed by Andrews must be both immensely rewarding and terrifying, but Australian soprano Anna O’Byrne is everything you could hope for in the role.
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.
Andrews must be very proud.
Similarly, it’s difficult to imagine a better Professor Higgins than British actor Alex Jennings, who has previously won an Olivier Award for playing the role on the West End.
As the phonetics professor who takes on Eliza as a pupil — coaching and bullying her into a new woman — his transformation is far subtler, but just as well realised.
It’s Higgins’ inner life that Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe wrote best when they adapted George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion into this musical. They manage to find a musical voice for a man who just doesn’t seem like he belongs in a musical, and it’s much more interesting than their writing for Eliza.
Andrews has assembled such a strong cast — even Australian theatrical legends Robyn Nevin and Reg Livermore have supporting roles — that it’s difficult to tell whether or not she’s a great director.
It’s made even more difficult by the fact that this 60th anniversary production is a recreation of the original Broadway production, complete with Oliver Smith’s original sets and Cecil Beaton’s original costumes.
Beaton’s costumes are elegant, stylish and significantly more understated than the film (although the Ascott scene is still a sight to behold) while Smith’s sets are obviously from 1956, but very beautifully and cleverly designed. The scene changes take longer than they might today (there was no automation in 1956), and there are some totally redundant scenes which take place in front of a curtain to cover them. But that’s the nature of this staging.
The orchestra sounds superb under Guy Simpson’s musical direction, but the sound design sometimes leaves the voices a little low in the mix, losing some of the wittier lyrics.
It’s certainly a fascinating act of theatrical excavation to bring this production back to life. And for musical theatre and design nerds (like myself) it’s an absolute treat to get a glimpse of this hugely influential staging.
There’s already been plenty of debate about whether producers Opera Australia and John Frost should have given a new creative team the opportunity to interrogate and interpret the musical. And it’s a legitimate question when our musical theatre is already so dominated by revivals and nostalgia pieces.
There are plenty of moments in which the staging shows its age and Andrews’ clear reverence for the original direction denies a particular scene its potential emotional weight. There’s an exchange in the first meeting between Eliza and Higgins which should reveal something quite profound about Higgins, but it’s skipped over far too quickly.
Everything is kept just a little bit too light — a very serious scene at the beginning of the second act should show the British class system grinding to a halt and crushing Eliza beneath it. It somehow drew giggles on opening night, despite O’Byrne digging into the full darkness of the situation.
But My Fair Lady’s combination of George Bernard Shaw’s dry, acerbic Irish wit and the emotional forthrightness of the American musical is undeniably potent.
Lerner and Loewe trace the evolution of Eliza and Higgins’ expectations and desires in a way that Shaw never did, even if their adaptation goes a little light on the class commentary which was central to Shaw’s work.
It’s not always a perfectly happy marriage — Lerner and Loewe famously gave the musical a happier and more “romantic” ending than Shaw’s, but in 2016 it not only diminishes Eliza, it makes little dramatic sense. Shaw’s work exposed Higgins’ misogyny and hypocrisy brilliantly, but the final scene of My Fair Lady undercuts that exposure significantly.
It’s disappointing that the ending remains exactly as is, and the audience certainly didn’t seem swept up in that moment like they might’ve 60 years ago. If any director has the right to play around with that ending and find something with a little bit more truth for Eliza, it’s Andrews.
But Andrews knows what makes the musical sing, and her production still works very well, driven by stunning performances. It gives audiences exactly what they want from a Julie Andrews-directed production of My Fair Lady — no more, no less.