Opera Australia’s My Fair Lady

I spent some of last night watching a dress rehearsal of the new production of Lerner and Loewe’s My Fair Lady, as performed by Opera Australia, and thought I’d cobble together some thoughts.

The musical, based on Shaw’s Pygmalion, tells the story of Henry Higgins, a self-involved phoneticist who enters a bet with a military colleague to turn a Cockney flower girl, Eliza Doolittle, into someone with the carriage – and diction – of a princess. All of which is carried out to a soundtrack you’ll know, even if you think you don’t

The production is designed to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the musical, and so it’s fitting that it’s directed by Dame Julie Andrews, who originated the role of Eliza (and then went to give thousands of performances on both Broadway and in the West End) is directing this revival. She’s the last link to the original, and the play for authenticity is reflected in the fact that this production is using Cecil Beaton’s original costume designs, as well as what I understand are recreations of the original sets.

What results is a production that has lots of little callbacks to previous versions of the work, and that can only really be described as a confection. I have a propensity for cynical dourness, and I found the show (with a few small exceptions) to be absolutely charming. By sticking to the original look and feel of the show, it feels familiar, while still bringing notes of difference in the performers.

The sets and costuming are remarkable. Setwise, there’s a lot going on, particularly in the interesting warren of Higgins’ study, or the curves and columns of Covent Garden. There’s a sense of layering that’s appealing, and both the Ascot and Embassy Ball sets are simple and gorgeous, all leaves and crystals. (The Embassy Ball set change received its own round of applause last night.)

The sets look like a fairly complex thing to wrangle, at least compared to other stagings I’ve seen at the Opera House, and it’s notable that other than a couple of moments where transitions took fractionally longer than you’d expect, it seemed to come together. Given that this was the first full run of the show on the stage, it bodes well for the rest of its tenure.

Those costumes, though. Man. The show is essentially clothes porn. Here’s an interactive look at Eliza’s Embassy costume, which doesn’t encapsulate how different the garments look when worn. It’s a confection, a riff on Edwardian style with excellently improbable hats, shown to best effect in the black-and-white -clad Ascot toffs.

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From the film version, but you get the idea.

Even if you don’t think you’re keen on costumes, it’s hard to avoid gawping; they’re great, whether they’re grimy or glittering.

The performances in the show were good. The musical was lighter and funnier than I remembered, and the acting – sometimes a letdown in opera, where some great voices can be a bit wooden when it comes to non-sung emotion – was good. It’s a solid cast, too. Alex Jennings’ Henry Higgins nails the role by being as punchable as you’d expect (excellently put in his place by his mother, played by Robyn Nevin). Anna O’Byrne is remarkable as Eliza, with a strong voice that shines in portions where she’s the sole focus.

Reg Livermore is Reg Livermore, pretty much: the accent slips into Les Patterson sometimes, his the physical craft is exemplary. Diedre Rubenstein’s Mrs Pearce and Tony Llewellyn-Jones’ Colonel Pickering are excellent supports, and deftly done. Mark Vincent’s Freddy belts ’em out in the limited time the role offers, and the chorus are strong, as is the orchestra. It’s a finely oiled thing, this show, and it’s satisfying to see something as well made.

Watching the performance – it’s been years since I’ve seen the movie, and I’d never seen it on stage – I was struck by how problematic a lot of the content seems. It appears, at first glance, that My Fair Lady is really Negging: The Musical – a couple of hours in which a woman is subjugated and treated as less than she is. There’s a strong blast of tch, women eh? in the work, alongside some potshots (albeit mostly affectionate) at the poor, foreigners, and a sort of Rule Britannia blitheness. It seemed pretty harsh, in places, pretty misogynist in tone.

But.

I did a little more thinking on the matter, and realised that the weak person in the play isn’t Eliza, by far: it’s the men. Her booze-sodden father, good for drinking and whinging about good fortune. The what-what (though endearing) outmoded Colonel. The appealing (though born to idleness) Freddy. And most of all,  Henry Higgins, who cheerfully admits he spends his time alone by choice, and then is undone when his project tells him to get bent, and decamps.

This article on the continued appeal of the film of the musical conveys it pretty accurately:

Their musical is not about a genius attempting to transform a weak woman. It’s about a strong woman attempting to retain her identity in spite of the controlling machinations of a small-minded man.

(The same article goes on to describe the number ‘Without You’ as an Edwardian Beyoncé tune, which is a pretty good call.)

My other sticking point is that it seems the musical is a bit front-loaded. Act I (which takes us up to the Embassy Ball) is long, and there’s a raft of tunes you’ll know even if you’ve not seen the musical. It’s a pretty long procession of well-known songs, while the second, much shorter Act pales a little in comparison.

Both this and my equivocation about the way some of the content can be interpreted are woven into the fabric of the play, though, so any beef with ’em rests with the authors.

This restaging of My Fair Lady is worth seeing. It’s supremely charming – that’s really the only word for it – and it treads the line between the iconic and the new fairly well. It’s good fun, and difficult to fault, aforementioned content aside. Even a curmudgeon such as I found it to be delightful, and I suspect you will, too.

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Julie Andrews before last night’s dress rehearsal.

(As an aside: it was deeply weird seeing Julie Andrews in person, obviously growing up with repeats of Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music in school holidays. She’s someone so major-league famous that it’s almost unnerving to see her in the flesh, two rows away. Suffice it to say that she received a standing ovation before the show even started, and that I suspect I’d be incapable of whipping myself into shape, let alone a stage production, in my eighties, as she has.)

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