Lerner and Loewe: My Fair Lady

Northern Sinfonia/John Wilson

The Sage, Gateshead, 30 July 2009 4 stars

Anthony Andrews as Henry Higgins in My Fair LadyA stellar cast gathered at The Sage in Gateshead for a performance of Lerner and Loewe's most successful musical My Fair Lady.

As well as the opportunity to witness star actors such as Antony Andrews and Nickolas Grace, the main draw of the concert was the chance to hear the complete original orchestrations – appallingly uncredited in the programme – by Robert Russell Bennett, Phil Lang and Jack Mason, played by the Northern Sinfonia under musical theatre aficionado John Wilson. Whereas modern revivals of classic musicals normally use only about a dozen players in the pit – I think it's nine in La Cage aux folles and fourteen for Chichester's Oklahoma! – the originals were scored for many more than that. In 1945, Carousel had thirty-nine musicians, compared to seventeen (a large number when set against the current norm, it has to be said) in the recent West End version.

The problem with reducing the number of players is twofold: on the one hand, fewer musicians tends to result in a narrower range of colours, as well as losing the richer sound; and on the other, the contrapuntal lines and nuances added by the original orchestrators often get changed or removed, to the detriment of the performance. So it was a joy to hear My Fair Lady played in its original orchestrations, vigorously and enthusiastically conducted by Wilson. There was tremendous pace to the performance, sometimes to the point of pushing the singers too fast, which led to a mishap during the opening of Act 2 ('You Did It'), but on the whole the orchestral rendition was immaculate and thrilling to hear.

Still, for me the greatest joy of the evening was the chance to witness Anthony Andrews' extraordinary Henry Higgins again, having seen him play it three times in the West End in 2003. He gave by far the most accomplished performance, and made the role his own. His experience in the part was widely apparent because of the ease with which he delivered the patter songs. Then, too, it was striking how individually he inhabited the part, rather than reproducing Rex Harrison's inflections in the original cast and movie recordings: the words seemed spontaneous and had all kinds of different emphases. Andrews' singing ability is also finer than Harrison's, in my opinion, and for my taste he could even have sung more of the lines; he could well appear in more musicals (perhaps an interesting choice for Georges in La Cage aux folles?).

Northern Sinfonia's concert staging had been conceived by the Broadway diva Kim Criswell, who directed, adapted the script and appeared as Mrs Pearce. The six soloists performed in costume and without book (with one exception) in front of the orchestra, and the evening was presented as Colonel Pickering's diary, in which he described his association with Higgins and Eliza. It meant that the story was related clearly but without long stretches of dialogue between the musical numbers. The 'memoir' concept was much more effective than I had feared in advance, because it meant that the scenes which were acted out seemed like little snapshots rather than a complete narrative, so one didn't miss the smaller characters such as Mrs Higgins.

Nikolas Grace (who co-starred with Anthony Andrews in Brideshead Revisited nearly thirty years ago) shared credit for the narration and, in the role of Pickering, gave an elegant and suave performance. He came a cropper of Wilson's fast tempo towards the end of 'You Did It' – and was saved by Criswell's performance of the descant line – but led the evening well, especially considering he was in charge of presenting familiar material in an unusual way. I was slightly disappointed with Julian Ovenden's Freddy Eynsford-Hill: 'On the Street Where You Live' seems to lie too low for him, and he overacted the number to compensate for the lack of tone at the bottom of the register. Still, the real surprise was how badly veteran Roy Hudd fared as Alfred Doolittle: he had to use a lyric sheet for 'With a Little Bit of Luck' but still fluffed many of the lines, and he just doesn't have enough voice to do the part justice.

In Annalene Beechey, the concert had an enchanting Eliza. In truth, I think the vocal line is set awkwardly for the break in her voice, but she has a beautiful instrument and great interpretative talent. 'Just You Wait' was a real showstopper and 'I Could Have Danced All Night' was uplifting, while even the amplification problems didn't stop her from delivering 'Show Me' securely. She also had real chemistry with Andrews, but it has to be said that his performance-crowning rendition of 'I've Grown Accustomed to her Face' was what made the night memorable.

By Dominic McHugh

Photo: Anthony Andrews as Henry Higgins in 2003

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