Friday, September 1, 2017


Book & Lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner - Music by Frederick Loewe
Set Design by Oliver Smith - Costume Design by Cecil Beaton
Directed by Julie Andrews - Choreographed by Christopher Gattelli
Capitol Theatre Sydney 27th August to 8th October, 2017

Reviewed by Bill Stephens

Anna O'Byrne - Charles Edwards - Julie Andrews 

It was a stroke of genius by John Frost and Opera Australia to invite Julie Andrews, who originated the role of Eliza Doolittle in the original 1956 Broadway production, to come to Australia to direct this recreation of that original Broadway production. That decision alone insured that the world would take notice. Julie Andrews has remained a big star ever since, mainly due to her films, but many questioned whether she had the directorial skills to make a success of such a project. They need not have worried.

 “My Fair Lady” has had many productions in Australia, including an excellent one by Opera Australia itself, with spectacular costumes designed by Roger Kirk. Reg Livermore, who plays Alfred Doolittle in this production, was a memorable Henry Higgins in that one.  In Canberra alone “My Fair Lady” has been revived many times. Particularly memorable was a 1979 production by the Canberra Philharmonic Society which used all the original Cecil Beaton costumes and most of the Oliver Smith setting, made for the 1959 JCW production (By the way, four of these costumes are on display in the Capitol Theatre foyers. The opportunity to look at them closely will heighten your appreciation of the authenticity of the current reproductions).  Another production, by The Canberra Theatre Trust in 1992, directed by Stuart Maunder, starred Dennis Olsen, quite superb as Professor Higgins.

The Ascot Scene 

The diligence of the producers of the current production in securing the original Oliver Smith and Cecil Beaton set and costume designs, and the assistance of some of the original creatives who had worked on the original Broadway production has certainly paid off in insuring that this new production is  as close to the 1956 original as is humanly possible.

But is the end result worth all the time and money expended, or does this production look like something preserved in aspic? 
 “My Fair Lady” is often referred to as the worlds “perfect musical”, and this meticulous recreation of the original production, now enjoying a triumphant return Sydney season, is a glorious demonstration of that assertion. Having seen the original JC Williamson production in Melbourne in 1959 and a good many other productions since, your reviewer is happy to report that it is worth every penny spent, and every hour of research.

The Embassy Ballroom scene

 From the very first notes of Frederick Loewe’s brilliantly evocative overture, given lush treatment here by Guy Simpson’s excellent orchestra, the show transports its audience into Edwardian London. Oliver Smith’s masterful setting immediately transports the audience to the Covent Garden Opera House where lavishly costumed opera-goers desperately try to avoid the rain, as they disburse after a performance.

It is in this scene that the flower girl, Eliza Doolittle (Anna O’Byrne), Professor Higgins (Charles Edwards) and his mother (Robyn Nevin, and the Colonel Pickering (Tony Llewellyn-Jones are introduced.

The settings with their soaring perspectives still look spectacular. The elegance and simplicity of the Ascot scene, and the double-revolve transition of the Embassy ballroom still draw gasps and applause from the audience. The colourful costumes look as lavish as ever, even more so now, because in restoring the production, advances in technology have been embraced so that the sets and costumes are now more superbly lit than could have been imagined when they were first created.

The casting is impeccable, and the actors now have the advantage of state-of-the art sound so that every word of the brilliant dialogue and lyrics is crystal clear. Suave, elegant and handsome Charles Edwards is an attractive Henry Higgins, revelling in the brilliant dialogue, and extracting every laugh from the character’s outrageous misogyny.

Anna O'Byrne (Eliza Doolittle) - Charles Edwards (Henry Higgins) 

He has a worthy adversary in Anna O’Byrne’s, flighty flower girl, Eliza Doolittle.  Convincing as the cheeky cockney, funny in the lesson and Ascot scenes, then heart-breakingly beautiful at the Embassy ball, O’Byrne’s transition from cockney to lady is a joy through-out, and Andrews has obviously left her room to stamp her own personality on the role. No disadvantage that her pure, crystalline voice is surprisingly reminiscent of Andrews own, especially in “I Could Have Danced All Night”.

But theirs are not the only performances to relish in this topline cast. Tony Llewellyn –Jones is delightfully idiosyncratic as Colonel Pickering, Diedre Rubenstein is a warm and caring Mrs Pierce, and Robyn Nevin is an elegant presence as Mrs Higgins.  Reg Livermore almost steals the show with his exuberant performance as Alfred P. Doolittle. He pulls out every trick in the trade to command attention in his two songs, “With a Little Bit of Luck” and “Get Me to the Church on Time”, and steal the limelight from the enthusiastic ensemble pouring everything into Christopher Gattelli’s clever choreography. And the way he portrays Doolittle’s quick changes of tactics in the study scene as he tries to inveigle money from Higgins are total delight.

Reg Livermore as Alfred P.Doolittle

If you’ve never experienced “My Fair Lady” on stage before, or like this reviewer, have seen many productions over the years, don’t miss this opportunity to see this miraculous reproduction. Then you’ll know why for the last 60 years, audiences all over the world, have regarded “My Fair Lady” as the world’s perfect musical. 

                                               Photos by Jeff Busby

This review also appears in Australian Arts Review.