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Julie Andrews has a new 'Boy Friend'

And this time, at age 70, she's running the show

EAST HADDAM, Conn. -- Sitting in a velvet chair in the green room of the Goodspeed Opera House, dressed in a white tunic, beige pants, and long gold pendant, Dame Julie Andrews looks gracious without being intimidating. Perhaps that's because she is also wearing a beige baseball cap, backward.

Andrews, who has delighted audiences for five decades, has entered a new stage of her career. At age 70, she's directing her first play, ''The Boy Friend" -- the show in which she made her Broadway debut 51 years ago. ''The Boy Friend" played at the Goodspeed last month before going on to Wilmington, Del., and then Boston, where it opens Tuesday at the Shubert Theatre.

Millions have been charmed by Andrews's regal, warm, and indomitable presence onstage and on screen. With her crisp British accent and erect posture, she whipped one household into shape in ''Mary Poppins" and nurtured another in ''The Sound of Music." She played a guttersnipe in ''My Fair Lady" and an adulteress in ''Camelot," then surprised many fans with her 1982 gender-bending film ''Victor/Victoria," directed by her husband, Blake Edwards.

But since 1997, that crystalline four-octave soprano has been stilled due to botched throat surgery. ''I have a fine five-note bass voice and could sing a splendid ''Old Man River" if you really wanted it," she jokes.

So she won't sing. No matter. Andrews is living absolutely in the present.

Andrews got involved with Sandy Wilson's ''The Boy Friend," a sunny, flapper-era musical romance, after her daughter Emma Walton, founder and co-artistic director of the Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor, N.Y., urged her to stage it there in 2003.

''In the last 10 years, I wondered if [directing] it was something I'd consider doing at some point," Andrews says. ''Then they asked me. I was nervous about it; they're my family and I'd have to live with them if I didn't do a good job." Complicating matters, Tony Walton, Andrews's ex-husband and Emma's father, would be doing sets and costumes.

Her daughter persuaded her to take the job, saying that Bay Street was the best place to either fail or succeed.

''The scariest thing was wondering, 'What will I not know to do?,' " Andrews says. '' 'What will I not include?' It really is a process of putting one foot in front of the other."

Jessica Grove, who plays Andrews's old lead role, Polly Browne, was at first intimidated by the star, but soon found herself charmed by Andrews's approachability and impressed by her clear sense of direction.

''She knows exactly what she wants from us," Grove says. ''She sticks to her guns and tells us to do it until we get it right."

Born Julia Elizabeth Wells, Andrews started studying voice at 7 1/2, made her professional debut at 12, and spent her teens touring around England during the waning days of vaudeville.

''Without knowing it, I was learning a great deal," she says. ''I worked with phenomenal comedians in their heyday. There were a lot of bad digs and landladies and strange experiences in the theater."

She was just 19 when she was cast in ''The Boy Friend" on Broadway in 1954, playing Polly, the heiress who falls in love with a delivery boy.

''I was very green, very naive," she recalls. ''It was an assault on the senses to come to Broadway from a little pond in London. I lived on the third floor of the Piccadilly Hotel on Broadway, where I had a single room with a shaft that looked up to the sky. I could stick my head out to check the weather."

One day, Andrews says, she looked up and saw that it was raining, but didn't think much of it. After all, she only had to go around the block for rehearsal. ''So I got outside and the wind was blowing quite hard. When I came to a corner I had to hang on to a lamppost because my feet were practically lifted up. When I got to rehearsal, there wasn't a soul around. I asked the stage-door gentleman, 'Where is everybody?' 'Honey,' he said, 'that's Hurricane Hazel out there.' I had no idea!"

The original ''Boy Friend" was such a hit that audience members did the Charleston in the aisles at the curtain call. And the show made her a star.

Fast forward to 2002. Andrews got over her nerves and directed the show at Bay Street to positive reviews. Then came the offer from Goodspeed to stage the show there and take it on a national tour, the 129-year-old theater's first.

''When I first saw the production," says Goodspeed executive producer Michael P. Price, ''there was a certain incandescence and excitement that I haven't seen in a long time" in a period play. ''Then to watch Julie work -- she wasn't just putting up on the stage what she did 50 years ago, she really re-thought 'The Boy Friend.' "

Andrews has kept busy making films, writing children's books, and running a publishing company with Emma Walton.

When asked if she's made her peace with the loss of her singing voice, Andrews, after a long pause, says, ''Yes. For a long time I was sort of in denial and hoping that perhaps over time it would, to a certain extent, return. I mourn it, I have to say I do. The thing I mourn most is the joy of singing with a big orchestra. It's one of the most magical things you can possibly do."

But, she adds, ''I wonder at my age now how much I would actually be singing and performing. I doubt I would have embraced some of these new things if I had still been singing."

She adds, brightening. ''Thank God, those windows opened up to me." Then she laughs. ''I sound like Maria von Trapp!"

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