21
Mar
17

My Fair Lady

My Fair Lady

Opera Australia & John Frost

QPAC Lyric Theatre

March 19 – April 30 2017

Reviewed by Xanthe Coward

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How long has it been since you saw a show that left you singing its divine melodies and dancing on air for days afterwards? Dame Julie Andrews’ production of Lerner and Lowe’s much-loved classic musical, My Fair Lady, is that show; it’s flawless. Beautifully realised to commemorate and celebrate the original incarnation of the “perfect musical”, this is a superb production, “deliriously joyous”, and the most visually stunning piece we’re likely to see on QPAC’s Lyric stage this year.

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In reimagining the original design concepts and colour palettes by Cecil Beaton (costumes), Oliver Smith (set) and Abe Feder (lighting), this world class creative team have surpassed anything we’ve seen yet in a revival on an Australian stage. Richard Pilbrow’s lighting states take us from the dim, dusty, overcrowded streets of London to the warm golden glow of the richly furnished terrace houses, to the bright natural daylight of Ascot and a sparkling chandelier-lit ballroom. And oh, those chandeliers! Row after row, cascading down upon us in waves from the Gods to settle above the swirling dancers en masse at the Embassy Ball. This slick transition avoids a lengthy blackout and serves as a splendid reminder that if one has the good taste and sense to do the right thing with it, great wealth brings beauty and privilege (and potentially, slick scene changes).

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Oliver Smith’s glorious set, with its dual revolves, high ceilings, ornate finishes and delicately painted backdrops, as well as the welcome inclusion of a motor vehicle for Mrs Higgins (you’ll find the detail behind this inspired choice in the program notes), meld the old and the new, honouring the fine traditions of the English and American theatre and drawing on the latest technology to make everything exquisitely beautiful and functional. Consistently applied, the latter could probably slice 15 minutes off the running time…

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Cecil Beaton’s costumes are magnificently recreated by John David Ridge, who assures us, having seen a great many My Fair Lady revivals, “not one set of designs has managed to erase the memory of Mr Beaton’s original.” Tones, textures, accessories and silhouettes are all perfectly realised. The famous black and white Ascot scene is by far the best we’ve seen, scintillating in its arrogance and elegance, especially in stillness. It stops the audience short in a collective gasp of awe and delight.

A bold ensemble brings to life the boisterous, colourful characters inhabiting Eliza’s old world and the poised high society types of the new. It must be one of the largest companies we’ve seen on this stage, a new edition of the combined little black books of Lyndon Terracini’s and John Frost’s vast networks to create the look and sound they’ve been chasing since the series of smash hit co-pros commenced with South Pacific (followed by  The King and I and Anything Goes). This is where opera and musical theatre must continue to meet, with all the elements coming together in perfect alchemy to create productions with finesse (and not just flaunted, coveted, overblown budgets) and thus, even broader global appeal. The formula will surely mean the eventual success of the long-awaited (recently {ish} postponed) Jekyll and Hyde… We can remain optimistic, at least.

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There are really no stand-outs in this exceptional ensemble, but having said that, I couldn’t help be drawn time and time again to the lively, lovely faces of Georgina Hopson, Holly Meegan, Octavia Barron Martin, Elisa Colla and Erin James (Dance Captain). And the ‘loverly’ Cockneys (Matt Heyward, Todd Keys, Joel Parnis and Glen Hogstrom), bringing warm, rich harmonies and a touch of class to the Covent Garden exterior, perhaps reminding us that we’re not so different from each other, but we’ve been “carefully taught” to believe otherwise. The ensemble provide an underscore of genuine humanity and joy. We see them making do with what they’ve got and aspiring to some small, immensely satisfying achievement somewhere along the trajectory of their humble lives. While this may be a slightly romanticised view, we do get a sense that rather than miserably and regrettably settling for less, these humble people have embraced the “less is more” edict and that’s not a bad thing for a flashy musical to subtly show us.

Eliza’s cursory return to the flower markets in the final minutes of the show, at which point she’s taken for a “lady”, unrecognised and unknown to the people on the streets (although they continue to whistle her song), is a poignant reminder that some simply must choose something more, or anything other, than the ordinary. Julie Andrews’ attention to detail paired with George Bernard Shaw’s knack, in the original text, for juxtaposing the extremes of society at the time – apparent at any time in history – must account for the truths apparent in these complex, full company scenes, choreographed by the acclaimed Christopher Gatelli. With an eye for space and shape, with fitting focus on the music that lifts our souls as much as it does the dancers’ feet, Gatelli creates magic in the staging of every musical number.

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Glen Hogstrom (Zoltan Karpathy) and Deirdre Rubenstein (Mrs Pearce) offer a great deal of humour and humanity respectively, and Tony Llewellyn-Jones is a sensitive (although, appropriately, not completely sensitive) Colonel Pickering. Mark Vincent, in his second ever professional musical theatre role, embodies poor Freddy Eynsford-Hill, offering obsessive energy rooted in societal good manners, and singing On the Street Where You Live as if his petty life depends upon the appearance of Eliza at her door, which, if you’re poor petty Freddy, it does. His is a terrifically funny and sincere performance, revealing the acting chops we knew were there, behind the magnificent tenor voice.

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Reg Livermore (honestly, who else could have been considered for this role?!), is Alfred Doolittle, Eliza’s highly amusing, mildly infuriating, friendly, happy-go-lucky, lovable, mostly drunk dad. His musical numbers just about steal the show, and his characterisation, while reminiscent of Stanley Holloway’s exuberance, brings to the role a greater degree of delight and abandon. He’s an absolute joy to watch. Likewise, who else but one of my favourites, Robyn Nevin, would even cross the minds of producers and director for the role of Mrs Higgins? Nevin honours Shaw’s vision of the woman, and the sophisticated, precisely groomed, perfectly well-mannered, regal traditional take on the role, and then takes it to the next level, adding a sensational contemporary flair and a wicked wit that has to be seen and heard to be fully appreciated. She responds to her son’s deplorable behaviour mildly then firmly and finally, not unfunnily, dresses him down, as he deserves, developing in the same succession of moments, the most intimate bosom relationship with Eliza over a cup of tea in the garden. Nevin’s nuanced performance is the masterclass we knew to expect from the First Lady of the Australian theatre.

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But who would have thought we could possibly love anybody more in the leading roles than Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn (her songs dubbed by the “Voice of Hollywood”, ghost singer, Marni Nixon) in the 1964 film, the first reimagining of Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion? Well, you’d better believe it; Charles Edwards and Anna O’Byrne are sensational in this production, recreating the perfectly imperfect characters by bringing a fresh, new, high voltage energy to the relationship and unique qualities to their individual characterisations. Absolutely hilarious, Edwards is completely charismatic, surprisingly debonaire, despite his blatant misogyny, arrogance and absent-mindedness, nailing the speak-singing, a style that historically, many have loved to hate; throughout, the flow between speech and song is masterful.

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And it’s not my imagination; O’Byrne is truly reminiscent of a young Julie Andrews, in voice and poise. In the role that first made Andrews famous (on Broadway in 1956), the uncanny similarity is most apparent in O’Byrne’s simple elegance and grace with which she holds the space while the men ignore her, congratulating each other on their astounding success, having passed her off at the Embassy Ball as a foreign princess. She stands, silently forlorn and not a little bit lost, until her newly discovered self-assurance and natural tendency to fire up over the gross injustice of her situation, bubbles to the surface and she violently flings Higgins’ slippers at his head. This duality is the secret to O’Byrne’s performance, harnessing as Andrews has done, both sweetness and boldness.

I’ve always adored the ending of My Fair Lady, not knowing but knowing that these two can remain separate entities but never be separated again. Growing up and watching the film dozens of times, this relationship was preferable to so many depictions of couples in other classic musicals (Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, ugh!), despite the final slipper-fetching taming of the guttersnipe/shrew. Let’s face it: penned by a man in an unenlightened era, ultimately, it’s Eliza’s choice to be tamed so let’s not get too caught up in how dare he, however; as Sam will probably sadly attest, I still can’t relate to this part of the story.

When the realisation drops in – yes! they are meant to be together! they will work it all out! – we rise to our feet, grinning, the rapturous applause and standing ovation, less often seen at QPAC than some would have you believe, absolutely heartfelt on this opening night, and we leave the theatre feeling that there is hope for the world and for all of us after all, each in our little lives! 

There is real magic in and around the staging of this stunning production; you can believe the raves and book now before the season sells out. It’s not only the “perfect musical” in terms of its book and score (a magnificent full orchestra under the musical direction of Guy Simpson and on opening night, the baton of Sunshine Coast treasure, Laura Tipoki), it’s a classic with real contemporary relevance and just enough nostalgia, just a spoonful, to make this My Fair Lady, the 60th Anniversary production, a richly rewarding, highly entertaining musical theatre experience for young and old. 

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