Thursday, May 18, 2017

Opera Australia and John Frost's meticulously recreated and effervescent My Fair Lady opens in Melbourne

Between the uncouth and the upper crust, Eliza Doolittle has much to navigate and stomach in her quest for betterment in Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe's sparkling iconic musical, My Fair Lady. It's a journey that's both touchingly portrayed and brought to effervescent life in Opera Australia and John Frost's impressive new show based on the original 1956 Moss Hart directed production. And giving vibrant and sensitive directorial clout from start to finish, as Broadway's first 'I'm a good girl I am' Eliza Doolittle, Dame Julie Andrews has wasted not a stage moment in setting the story alight with her spirited cast, including Christopher Gattelli's effective task-driven choreography that integrates without overpowering.

Ensemble, Ascot Scene Act One, My Fair Lady
Sydney and Brisbane have already enjoyed its spectacularity but when it opened at Melbourne's ornate Regent Theatre on Tuesday night, it was as if a much-hyped world premiere had arrived to give Eliza Doolittle's story her most gracious home, be it an oversized one that distant occupants might need to pick up their own Ascot Racecourse field glasses for.

The meticulous recreation of the original doesn't preclude the vast amounts of creativity that have gone into bringing the work back to the stage and the supervising design team deserve huge credit for the brilliant work done to resurrect set designer Oliver Smith's intricate locales and Cecil Beaton's lavish costumes. From the dingy backstreets of Covent Garden to Henry Higgins' capacious but cosy study, to the prim-penned stiffness of Ascot and the glamorous chandelier-studded embassy ballroom, the Edwardian sets and costumes tantalise and beguile. Scene after scene effortlessly moves along with their copious details and quirkily expressed perspectives all dazzling under Richard Pilbrow's lighting.

Sometimes, recreating a work truthfully has more to say the second time round than it did in its day and My Fair Lady seems to do just that. Six decades on, Eliza Doolittle's audience will be more informed - the swinging 60s followed the premiere with the sexual revolution and the women's movement's fight for sexual equality continuing to resonate in its ongoing struggle to make equality a reality in all aspects of society today.

On the backstreets of Covent Garden, Act One, My Fair Lady
We can look at Henry Higgins with greater distaste for the sour assaults he lashes on Eliza while treating her like a lab-rat in a social experiment to prove he can transform her from a 'guttersnipe' flower girl to a duchess in six months. We can see Eliza dreaming big, abused by class and sexual differences yet nudging through with strength and free will. It makes Eliza's return to Higgins in the final scene feel compromised but by the time the curtain goes down on its foggy ending, Eliza seems to be the one who'll be giving Higgins much-needed training.

In it all, Andrews has bitten in deeply to highlight the emotional connections without resorting to sentimental sugar-coating. In her service is a tuned, character-driven cast led by two exceptionally solid leads.

Through and through, as Eliza, Australian musical star Anna O'Byrne gives an enticingly sophisticated performance as she transforms convincingly from unkempt common flower girl to elegant fair lady. Layers of natural charm accompany O'Byrne's performance and, whenever she sings, she does so following in the great Andrews tradition with a keen sense of expressive outlay and gleaming purity of voice. Whether it be the daintily melodic "Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?" or the hearty ferocity of "Just You Wait and Show Me", O'Byrne's ability to take the text, mould it and dance with it is a delight to watch, especially so as Higgins' frazzled specimen persevering in mastering the elocution of "The Rain in Spain".

English stage and screen actor, Charles Edwards, twinkles as a perfect paradoxical, blindly misogynistic and eccentric Professor Henry Higgins. Diction-clear and authoritatively savvy with sing-speak, Edwards effortlessly captures his audience as his Higgins' depth of intellect and lack of maturity and compassion challenge in keeping oneself from biffing him a beauty for his gross insensitivity. The spark Edwards creates on stage alongside O'Byrne is a cracker and, though it comes late, his Higgins' softening heart coyly peers through.

Embassy Ballroom Scene, Act One, My Fair Lady
Colonel Pickering, Higgins' gentlemanly chum, is superbly styled in the hands of Tony Llewellyn-Jones. Veteran stage legend Reg Livermore brings cartloads of energy to the indecorous Alfred Doolittle with jollity and cheekiness pouring out in pleasingly raw song in "With a Little Bit of Luck" and "Get Me To The Church On Time".

Robyn Nevin puts high polish to Mrs Higgins' plum aristocratic airs and no-nonsense sensibility, Deirdre Rubenstein comfortably warms the house as Higgins' housekeeper, Mrs Pearce, and as the love struck Freddy, Mark Vincent's melting warmth and resonance make a big impression with a heartfelt "On the Street Where You Live".

On opening night, dutifully supporting the cast, ample musical richness and vitality wafted from the pit under musical director Guy Simpson as he led a meticulous, primed and luscious-sounding 22-piece orchestra. Michael Waters' sound design added final touches of finesse.

The fusion of artistic and creative elements that make Opera Australia and John Frost's My Fair Lady so special will continue to enamour its audience just as the runaway success of the 1956 Broadway production did. Only, we are hopefully more ready to embrace the equality of the sexes.

Opera Australia and John Frost
Regent Theatre, Melbourne
Until 29th July

Production Photos: Jeff Busby

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