Anna O’Byrne is one of Australia’s leading musical theatre performers. A former Principal Artist at Victorian Opera, her performance as Christine Daaé in the Australian premiere of Love Never Dies won her critical acclaim and, following the release of a filmed version of the production, earned her an international following. O’Byrne then went on to make her London debut as Christine in the West End production of The Phantom of the Opera and later played the same role in Russia. Since that time, she’s continued to chalk up an impressive slew of credits, both here and internationally.
It was in 2016 when O’Byrne’s status as a star of the Australian stage was cemented, following her casting as Eliza Doolittle in the 60th anniversary production of My Fair Lady. Under the direction of Dame Julie Andrews, O’Byrne delivered a stunning performance lauded by critics and audiences alike, ultimately leading to her receiving the Helpmann Award for Best Female Actor in a Musical.
Six years after first taking the stage as Eliza, O’Byrne reminisces about her time playing the iconic role in Becoming Eliza, her new one-woman show. Produced by Enda Markey, with musical direction by Guy Simpson and direction by Sharon Millerchip, O’Byrne provides audiences a glimpse into an experience she’s described as “beyond anything I could have dreamed”.
O’Byrne begins the 70-minute piece by stepping much further back in time to when she played violin at age 13 in her school’s own production of My Fair Lady. It’s a score she has long loved, having grown up listening to the 1956 original Broadway cast recording with her older sister, Katie. In fact, in this school production, it’s Katie who’s taken on the leading role, while O’Byrne remains out of sight in the orchestra.
But years later, it is Katie, O’Byrne recalls, who informs her that a search is underway for an ingenue to play Eliza in the anniversary production of My Fair Lady in Australia. Katie (now pursuing a career in law) encourages her younger sibling to audition. And so begins a lengthy process that eventually culminates in O’Byrne securing a dream role, under the tutelage of a true legend of the stage and screen.
Drawing on music from My Fair Lady and elsewhere (including the scores of Mary Poppins, Victor/Victoria, Thoroughly Modern Millie and Lady in the Dark), O’Byrne tells a highly engaging tale of her tenure as Eliza. She talks about the rehearsal process and some of the moments in the show that proved to be the most challenging; she recollects walking through Eliza’s London (specifically, Covent Garden), and she paints a picture of what it’s like to receive constructive criticism from Dame Julie Andrews (who, she’s convinced, is forever followed by her own spotlight operator, given her perpetual luminosity.) She even addresses the problematic aspects of My Fair Lady that are frequently discussed by contemporary theatre critics.
With a well written script, O’Byrne draws her audience in from the outset and manages to conjure wonderfully rich pictures of a time she clearly cherishes. Her splendid soprano impresses every bit as much as it did at the time of her Helpmann Award-winning performance and ensures each of the musical numbers is memorable. On opening night, a heartfelt rendition of ‘Living in the shadows’ was a particular highlight, alongside ‘My ship’, one of the Dame’s own favourite songs. O’Byrne is amply backed by Simpson on piano, as well as a string trio.
It all makes for a piece that very quickly flies by and leaves you wanting more from this compelling performer. Becoming Eliza is an opportunity to witness O’Byrne in fine form after some time away from the Australian stage. Her honest, warm, and personable account of preparing to play Eliza Doolittle is a treat for fans and musical theatre aficionados generally. She may not return to 27A Wimpole Street, but there are many other characters (new and old) we can’t wait to see this rising star portray.
Review by Tim Garratt
Photo credit: Prudence Upton
Becoming Eliza plays at the Playhouse, Sydney Opera House until Sunday 12 June, 2022.
To purchase tickets, click here.