When Dame Julie Andrews sang on a London stage for the first time in 30 years last week, it was billed as the career comeback of the century and a possible taster for a future world tour. But instead, the ill-conceived debacle witnessed by myself and 14,000 others on Saturday has been branded an expensive rip-off by critics and fans alike, tarnishing the wholesome reputation of the Oscar-winning star of Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music.
A decade ago, Andrews announced she would never sing again following a botched throat operation that severely restricted her four-octave range and led to an expensive lawsuit. But late last year, the 74-year-old star unveiled surprise plans for a spectacular show at the cavernous O2 Arena in Southeast London entitled The Gift of Music: an Evening with Julie Andrews. In fairness to Andrews, she never attempted to conceal her ongoing vocal problems. "I don't want anybody to think I'm coming back with a restored voice," she admitted during a pre-show interview on BBC Radio last week, "but I do have some bass notes left and I kind of employ them as best I can." Promising a glorious feast of music, she added: "I don't think anybody is going to be disappointed."
But Dame Julie's O2 performance was indeed a major disappointment, not so much for her limited bass notes than her reluctance to employ them at all. Initially, goodwill levels were high as the British-born, Hollywood-based diva arrived to tumultuous applause in a regal gold ballgown. Backed by the 50-plus members of the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra, Andrews introduced a selection of classic numbers by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, the composers of South Pacific, The King and I and The Sound of Music. For the next 90 minutes, however, she barely sang a note. Instead, she handed over the stage to five anonymous Broadway-style vocalists. Andrews tackled a mere handful of numbers on her own: Getting to Know You, Do-Re-Mi, and My Funny Valentine. But while her voice clearly lacked the power and range of her superstar prime, it was by no means ruined, even when she resorted to a semi-spoken delivery style.
The show's second half proved even more disheartening, testing the crowd's patience to breaking point. Most of it was taken up by Simeon's Gift, a musical adaptation of a 2003 children's book co-written by the singer and her daughter, Emma Walton Hamilton. Adding insult to injury, Andrews only narrated the fairy-tale story - without singing a single tune. This banal exercise in Disney-style whimsy was the final straw, an insulting piece of product placement for a vanity project that probably could not have filled a village hall on its own merits. Before long, exasperated audience members began vacating the venue and heading home.
Even so, the crowd still politely applauded as Andrews deigned to sing a clutch of gentle encores. Her crisply enunciated solo rendition of Cockeyed Optimist from South Pacific sounded fine, as did her lower-range crooning on a full-cast ensemble version of Edelweiss from The Sound of Music. Both perfectly respectable efforts. But too little, too late. Reviews of the show in the British press have been universally negative. The Sunday Telegraph called it a "theatrically tragic spectacle". The Guardian found it "creaky" and "cheesy", dismissing the second half as "dismayingly indulgent". Meanwhile, London's Evening Standard conceded the veteran diva's "hunger to perform was certainly admirable, but the musical rations were nowhere near satisfying".
But if the media were scathing, the public were furious. Hundreds of disappointed fans are now demanding refunds after walking out of a show described by one as a "second-rate pantomime". Having paid steep ticket prices between £50 (Dh275) and £140, (Dh770) plus a further £12 (Dh66) for a flimsy programme, many are feeling duped and mugged. "How do you solve a problem like getting your money back after a Julie Andrews concert?" quipped the Daily Mirror. Not easily, it seems. "The promoters of the show are disappointed that some fans were not happy with An Evening With Julie Andrews," sniffed an official O2 statement.
Promising to look into all complaints, the statement concluded that "the show started and finished with a standing ovation. That speaks for itself." Ironically, the main thing this half-baked concert proved is that Andrews can still sing, if only she were prepared to work around her vocal limitations like many other performers of similar vintage. Think of Marianne Faithfull's husky croak, Bob Dylan's parched rasp, or Leonard Cohen's gravelled rumble. Think of the great Lena Horne, who died last week, still winning Grammys as she trilled elegantly past her 80th birthday.
Whatever the critics may say, the main flaws in this show were not so much with Dame Julie's voice, but with her lack of imagination in using it. I hope she gets to sing again, with smarter presentation and more personal involvement. Otherwise this ill-conceived homecoming may go down in history as the lacklustre final act in an otherwise glittering career.