Friday 28 October 2016

Review: My Fair Lady, Sydney

The rain in Spain
falls mainly
in the plain

The test of a good musical (or perhaps an effective musical) is whether its tunes and lyrics stick in your head after the final curtain.

In the case of My Fair Lady, that's a given. Hours after Narrelle and I filed out of the Sydney Opera House after being hosted by Destination New South Wales, the above number was still on loop in my brain.

This musical is not short of memorable songs. In addition to the one about weather conditions in the Iberian peninsula, other famous numbers include Wouldn't It be Loverly, I Could Have Danced All Night, and Get Me to the Church on Time.

They're performed with skill and confidence by the ensemble of this revival of the 1956 hit musical, which was based on George Bernard Shaw's play about a professor of linguistics attempting to mould a Cockney flower girl into a lady of refinement.

Interestingly, this version directed by Julie Andrews has the feel of a Hollywood movie of the postwar era.

Costume colours brighter and more stylised than anything seen on an Edwardian London street give the production a hint of vivid Technicolor. The the fine performance of Alex Jennings as Professor Higgins also has a hint of Rex Harrison's portrayal in the 1964 film of the musical.

Australian actor Anna O'Byrne plays the feisty Eliza, giving 'Enry 'Iggins as good as she gets with a bold performance full of personality.

The sense of artifice - the reminder that we're watching a story - is reinforced by the set design, with the entire stage enclosed within a giant golden frame that suggests a portrait.

Added to the stylised colour scheme and the distinctive sets, it suggests a production that doesn't want us to take it too seriously.

Is this distancing born of insecurity about whether the story would hold up in the 21st century? If so, the producers needn't have worried.

There's plenty here that contemporary audiences can relate to: Higgins' overwhelming sense of entitlement, the class prejudices symbolised by accents, the objectification of a young woman without regard to her actual needs, and the use of money to justify anything.

This production of My Fair Lady is sharp and snappy, with strong performances by both its stars and supporting actors. It won't change your life, but it has a lot of catchy numbers - and more food for thought than you first expect.

My Fair Lady continues to 5 November 2016 at the Sydney Opera House, then travels to Brisbane (March 2017) and Melbourne (May 2017). For more information and bookings, visit the production's website.

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