Dame Julie Andrews: Fans high despite low notes

By Matthew Shaw
Entertainment and arts assignments editor, BBC News

Image caption, The first half of the evening was dedicated to Rodgers and Hammerstein

For the thousands of loyal fans at London's O2 Arena, Dame Julie Andrews' first UK stage appearance for more than 30 years was a moment to worship one of the greatest musical voices of all time.

But 13 years after an operation on her vocal cords, the 74-year-old star of The Sound of Music and Mary Poppins couldn't hit the high notes of her stage and screen career.

The audience for Dame Julie's comeback was the predictable but uneasy coalition of the blue rinse and the pink pound.

A smattering of famous names in the audience - that other British Hollywood dame, Elizabeth Taylor, had earlier been rumoured to have been attending - included Honor Blackman and Sophie Ellis-Bextor.

Image caption, Dame Julie Andrews played Maria in The Sound of Music

They waited patiently as the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra tuned up.

The first half of The Gift of Music - An Evening With Julie Andrews was dedicated to the Broadway partnership of Rodgers and Hammerstein.

It was the film version of The Sound of Music which opened the show on huge screens hung over the bare and rather unimaginative stage.

Dame Julie finally appeared at the end of the movie's classic opening number and received the first of a handful of standing ovations.

But from the start it was clear we were paying our respects to a voice never to be heard again.

Dedicated worshippers

Dame Julie can now only sing at the lower range of her voice - something she has spoken about very publicly in the past.

To her most dedicated worshippers it probably didn't matter. She assured them she could "still sing the hell out of Old Man River" .

Joined by five other singers during King and I tune Getting to Know You, we at last heard Dame Julie sing with that crisp diction of the English nanny she is so famous for.

But it was more akin to the "speak-singing", made famous by Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady, than vintage Andrews.

After a few lines, Dame Julie faded into the background, sitting on a rather lonely spot-lit stool at the edge of the stage.

The rest of the first half featured a string of hits from Carousel and Oklahoma broken up by Dame Julie's stories of her glory days on stage and screen.

One member of the audience told me it was "heartbreaking" to watch as Dame Julie turned to the big screens to pay homage to her youth.

And for parts of the show she chose to leave the stage as the other singers took the limelight.

But the audience did get one full song, an emotional version of My Funny Valentine, before she was joined by the other performers for a rousing rendition of Sound of Music classic Do-Re-Mi.

At last the audience exploded into life as they became part of the ultimate sing-along version of the cult musical hit.

In the second half, Dame Julie narrated Simeon's Gift, a children's book she wrote with her daughter, Emma Walton Hamilton.

Her five supporting singers became actors in basic dressing-up box costumes, performing a children's musical with none of the irony and intelligence we expect from the West End of the 21st Century.

It felt like Mary Poppins was telling us all a bedtime story and, for some of the audience, it was the moment to make their way home.

But the finale of classics from South Pacific and the Sound of Music got the show back on track as Dame Julie made a final bow to both the audience and the heyday of her career on the big screens.

During the show, we heard that, after a Broadway audition, Richard Rodgers once told the young Julie Andrews she was "absolutely adequate".

That was also the verdict of some of the audience I spoke to on Saturday night.

But for the fans still singing Edelweiss as they left the arena, the thrill of worshipping their icon more than made up for the disappointment of not hearing the Maria von Trapp they fell in love with.

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