What a delight to revisit this 60th anniversary production of My Fair Lady in the directorial hands of its original Eliza, Dame Julie Andrews. She hopes it will be viewed as “the definitive anniversary production” and, on the basis of my own 58 year association with the musical – having seen it soon after its London opening as an eager teenager – I believe she's given considerable thought to changes of emphasis in the show necessitated by time, as well as bringing together inheritors of all the key creatives who opened My Fair Lady at Broadway's Mark Hellinger Theater on 15th March 1956.

Dame Julie Andrews © James Morgan
Dame Julie Andrews
© James Morgan

Legendary set designer Oliver Smith's work has been supervised by his student and assistant, Rosaria Sinisi; Cecil Beaton's iconic costumes are recreated by his last assistant, John David Ridge; lighting by Feder (the fabled Abe) has been studied and technically updated by Richard Pilbrow, who'd “worshipped” Feder for years before meeting him in 1961; and, of course, the 80-year-old Andrews has a few memories of Moss Hart's direction of her 22-year-old self – even though, surprisingly, she was beaten for the Best Actress Tony in 1957 by Judy Holliday!

But the most surprising thing is that all these Damned Yankees – headed by the writer/composer team of Lerner and Loewe, who'd succeeded where Rogers & Hammerstein, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Frank Loesser, Leonard Bernstein and Gian Carlo Menotti had failed to envisage Shaw's play Pygmalion as a musical – could create such an English show! Of course, a lot of GBS's words and most of his plot intentions are there at the core of this very wordy musical. But the playwright's skewering of that quintessential class consciousness wrought by language and its pronunciation has survived its Americanisation wonderfully.

And all those witty conversations do sound more emphatically verbal when MFL is co-produced by an opera company. One of the few flaws with this show is the sound – amplification of both singers and the 32-piece band in the Joan Sutherland Theatre just sounds unreal and unnecessary – until you note that the cast is doing eight shows a week for two months and just couldn't survive without some assistance.

Reg Livermore (Alfred P Doolittle) and Alex Jennings (Henry Higgins) © Jeff Busby
Reg Livermore (Alfred P Doolittle) and Alex Jennings (Henry Higgins)
© Jeff Busby

And it's a cast that deserves protection. In the great Aussie tradition, Henry Higgins is an English import – the Olivier Award-winning Alex Jennings, playing Shaw's professor of phonetics for the third time. I did wonder whether Jennings' patter singing technique was a cause for conductor Guy Simpson's somewhat staid tempi. But his enunciation of those wonderful words was immaculate; and his handling of the character's almost forgiveable misogyny until the questionable end was delightful.

Anna O'Byrne's Eliza isn't really an English import – though the Australian-born singer is a product of the Lloyd-Webber and Cameron Macintosh globalised system that has transported her from Sydney to the West End and Moscow, even to the English National Opera for Sweeney Todd. I simply can't believe that Julie Andrews didn't see her younger self in O'Byrne – or was it just make-up? But Eliza's icy presence after the ball as the 'boys' – Higgins and an only marginally more sensitive Tony Llewellyn-Jones as Colonel Pickering – go in for an orgy of teenage back-slapping (“By George, you did it”!), was all her own. What I hadn't noticed in 1958 (or since), was the first indication of Eliza's affection for Higgins in “I could have danced all night”. It's both a celebration of finally getting “The rain in Spain” right, and, almost reluctantly, her pleasure in being seized by her arrogant teacher for a brief flurry of flamenco.

Anna O'Byrne (Eliza Doolittle) © Jeff Busby
Anna O'Byrne (Eliza Doolittle)
© Jeff Busby

I was also moved by the deracinated Eliza's return to the Covent Garden Flower Market in such smart clothes and with such smart manners that her costermonger mates fail to recognise her. Perfect proof of the fears of displacement she's been expressing from the beginning of the whole exercise in self-improvement. At least she's recognised by her equally deracinated Dad – the wonderful Aussie veteran Reg Livermore (who, extraordinarily, once played Higgins!) – though his philosophical acceptance of his new middle-classness (bought by an accidental inheritance of GBP4000 a year) is happily played out through a beautifully choreographed “Get me to the church on time”.

Unfortunately, in a rare failure of tone, Andrews then gets everyone on stage dancing to that catchy tune, almost as though she's reluctant to tackle the only dud tune in the whole show – 'Without you' – or the uncertain emotions that flow from Eliza leaving Higgins and his discovery that “He's grown accustomed to her face”. Shaw then saw her as attaining freedom in marrying the empty-headed Freddy, but the world wanted at least a go at a Higgins/ Doolittle liaison to complete the transformation of them both.

****1