Lerner and Loewe’s My Fair Lady was truly ‘loverly’ when it opened on Sunday 19 March 2017 at the Queensland Performing Arts Centre (QPAC) in Brisbane, to a thrilling standing ovation. Directed by the legendary star of stage and screen Dame Julie Andrews, the night was filled with wonder as ‘Eliza Doolittle’ herself was in appearance to support her talented company. The theatre buzzed with excitement as I arrived at the Lyric Theatre. No sooner than I sat down there was a roar of cheer as Dame Julie arrived to her seat to enjoy the show. She waved, did a thumbs up and pointed to the stage making sure the audience knew the night wasn’t about her.
With their leader in the room the cast of one of the most classic Broadway musicals came to life. They began the show set in London with the ‘Busker Sequence’ introducing the vibrant ensemble members, the contrast of poor and rich clearly illustrated through costume and stance. Soon after, you meet the leading ‘lady’ of the piece, Eliza Doolittle. She is played by the exquisite Anna O’Byrne (Phantom of the Opera, Love Never Dies), when she is first seen as a flower seller on the street. Eliza grew up with little education and talks with a cockney accent not pronouncing words correctly. Eliza’s dream is to work in a florist store and until she speaks properly, she will not be granted that luxury.
Whilst selling roadside blooms she encounters Professor Henry Higgins, portrayed by hit series Downton Abbey’s, Charles Edwards. He works with phonetics and analyses different people’s speech, knowing where they are from or grew up just by hearing them utter a word. There he meets Colonel Pickering, played by funny and enchanting theatre veteran, Tony Llewellyn – Jones. Higgins proclaims to him that he could transform Eliza into a ‘lady’ or ‘duchess’ before the Embassy Ball in six months. Pickering then glides off to the Professor’s beautiful house to discuss his life’s work. Not too long after they arrive, Eliza is at his door taking him up on his offer to teach her how to speak and act like a woman of society, for not too much money at all. Eliza dreams to be hired to work at a real flower shop and not dragging her pennies on the pavement. Higgins hesitates, although eventually gives in as Pickering reminds him he declared he could do just that.
Anna O’Byrne embodies the role of Eliza with such a likeness of Julie Andrews’ original rendition, but carries her own. She places a unique spin on how she inadvertently enjoys Higgins company and how Edwards bounces off Anna’s joy for the role. Also in the sombre moments she embraces the character’s pain of being seen as ‘a prize to be won’, as Higgins wins the bet after the Embassy ball. Eliza feels like she was used and is not being paid attention to.
Anna’s voice is absolutely stunning and there is no doubt why she landed the role as she mastered the poor London girl’s accent and body language in the first scene where she performs ‘Wouldn’t it be loverly’, as she longs for a better life for herself. Following the eventual hilarious success of speaking properly in ‘The rain in Spain’, O’Byrne shines in her thrilling song ‘I could have danced all night.’ In this song I was pulled into a trance listening to the joy that leaps from her voice to my heart, I just wanted to waltz.
On the other hand she displays her versatility as an actor as she gracefully takes on Higgins idea of what a ‘lady’ is supposed to look and sound like, firstly in the Ascot races scene. A very big nod to the costume designer, Cecil Beaton for the visually breathtaking array of black and white costumes that the hard-working ensemble showcase, as they silently but amusingly follow the horse race with their stern facial expressions and still posture, leaving the audience in a fit of giggles. Of course Beaton also gloriously created the light pink gown that Eliza floats into the races in. She woos the crowd and Mrs. Higgins (Henry’s mother), portrayed by fabulous star of screen, Robin Nevin; with her charmingly poised speech and unusual stories.
Charles Edwards gives a stellar performance of Higgins as he already possesses the accent, being from Britain, to give this role the authenticity it required. Additionally he finds that creative fluidity of being proud of Eliza regarding her big scene at the ball as she is heard and not just seen. Alternatively he discovers the other side of the spectrum as an uncaring, misogynistic man as he sings ‘Why can’t a woman be more like a man.’ With his little quirks and affection for Eliza you know exactly why they cast him and that he is a seasoned actor that has honed his craft extremely well. Further on he expresses the character’s vulnerability in ‘I’ve grown accustomed to her face.’
Reg Livermore depicts Eliza’s father, Alfred P. Doolittle and is the comic relief of the piece as he demands the stage during ‘With a little bit of luck’ and especially in ‘Get me to the church on time.’ His chaotic antics are displayed for the world to see. Livermore definitely is the funny, lovable character we all need in a musical theatre piece.
Mark Vincent who plays Freddy Eynsford – Hill is another notable character for his laughter and outstandingly talented operatic singing voice in ‘On the street where you live.’ However he has really paved his way into the acting profession with his beautiful infatuation with Anna’s character, Miss Doolittle.
Dedire Rubenstein as the worrisome and caring Mrs. Pearce and Glen Hogstrom’s comedic craziness as Karpathy are gorgeously illustrated alongside the dedication of the whole company. The ensemble delivers a collective of fantastic performances notably the Ascot scene all singing stunningly in unison and the joyous ride that is ‘Get me to the church on time.’
Brisbane Street Studios
I particularly enjoyed towards the conclusion of the show when ensemble member Elisa Colla sells flowers to ‘Eliza’. It creates the full circle effect of how she once lived (P.S Elisa Colla understudies Eliza so it was like she was foreshadowing her cover role in this scene). They all worked together to create a fabulous night at the theatre that will make you want to dance and sing all night post curtain. I got an overwhelming feeling of women empowerment and to create a sense of identity for yourself no matter your situation or who you are.
Congratulations to the cast and crew I give the show 5/5 for a spectacular night out, one for the entire family.
Book your tickets to My Fair Lady for Brisbane (currently playing), Melbourne and Sydney (return season) here!