“Enchantment Pours Out of Every Door”
If you’re just an ordinary man or woman seeking a show somewhere, far away from the cold night air, then you’ve got dozens of choices throughout the city. But if you’ve got a little bit of luck, a wallet full of cash, and are looking for something lavish, luscious, and abso-bloomin-lutely loverly, my advice is to get to Lincoln Center on time to see Lerner and Loewe’s My Fair Lady.
This is the 1955 show’s first Broadway revival since 1993, when Melissa Errico played the flower girl Eliza and Richard Chamberlain the egotistical phonetician. And it’s a must-see.
The production, smashingly staged at the Beaumont by the ever reliable Bartlett Sher (South Pacific, The King and I), is an exquisitely directed, designed, and performed rendition of this classic musical about the possibilities of human transformation, made even more resonant by its reflection of contemporary #MeToo concerns.
You may have often seen My Fair Lady before, and have grown accustomed to her face, but by the time the first of its two acts draws to a close you’ll feel seven stories high as enchantment pours out of every door.
The genius behind My Fair Lady’s place at the apex of mid-20th-century musical theatre lies in its unique combination of a remarkable score—both lyrics and music—combined with a surprisingly faithful adaptation of its source, Pygmalion, perhaps the most consistently appealing and provocative comedy George Bernard Shaw ever wrote. (For more on the plot, see my review of the recent Bedlam production of Pygmalion.)
One can only thank heaven for little miracles (to paraphrase a Lerner and Loewe song from another work) that My Fair Lady was written when book musicals with spoken scripts didn’t have to compete with sung-through shows.
There are many things that make this My Fair Lady a must-see, beginning with Michael Yeargan’s gorgeous sets. These brilliantly use the vast expanses of the Beaumont’s huge thrust stage by employing independent sliding units on a disk to represent the various London exteriors, from Covent Garden to the façade of Higgins’s house. All looks ravishing under the spell of Donald Holder's magnificent lighting.
|Jordan Donica. Photo: Joan Marcus.|
Then there’s Yeargan’s impressive version of the interior of Higgins's house, which slides forward from upstage, revealing a two-story drawing room cum library, with its richly paneled and book-lined walls, and a spiral staircase. When it revolves on the disk so that the action can flow continuously into other rooms, you appreciate the care (and expense) that went into creating this event.
Similarly breathtaking are Catherine Zuber’s Edwardian costumes, including everything from those worn by the poor cockneys to the flouncy red skirts of the music hall girls to the jaw-dropping accoutrements of the fashionably elegant upper-classes.
|Norbert Leo Butz and company. Photo: Joan Marcus.|
Of course, the ones we wait for are those for the “Ascot Gavotte,” where Zuber dresses the crowd in dazzling pale-silver, with Liza set off in a gown of white and black, with a large, circular white hat, ringed in black, worn on one side of her adorable head.
|Norbert Leo Butz. Photo: Joan Marcus.|
There are no weak links in the company, which includes a marvelously volatile Norbert Leo Butz as Alfred P. Doolittle. Butz dances, sings, and acts his butt off as Eliza’s bibulous, dustman father, self-styled representative of the “undeserving poor.” His “Get Me to the Church on Time,” memorably choreographed by Christopher Gattelli, deservedly stops the show.
|Lauren Ambrose, Dame Diana Rigg. Photo: Joan Marcus.|
As Higgins’s mother, the beloved Dame Diana Rigg, as magnetically regal as ever, makes every deeply-voiced word drip with wisdom and humor; veteran Allan Corduner’s Col. Pickering is a delightful moderating force between Higgins and Eliza; Linda Muggleston’s Mrs. Pearce is a stalwart steward of Higgins’s domain; and Jordan Donica as Eliza’s innocuous swain, Freddy Eynsford-Hill, sings “The Street Where You Live” gloriously.
|Harry Hadden-Payton, Lauren Ambrose. Photo: Joan Marcus.|
The tall, slender Harry Hadden-Payton is perhaps a bit youthful and insufficiently harsh as Higgins but he’s unquestionably dashing, distinguished, and charismatic. His songs were famously written so they could be spoke-sung for the non-singing Rex Harrison, My Fair Lady’s first Higgins, but Hadden-Payton displays actual musical ability when required.
|Harry Hadden-Payton. Photo: Joan Marcus.|
Stealing both the show and my heart, however, is the Eliza of redheaded Lauren Ambrose, giving an ambrosiac performance of charm, insight, warmth, defiance, passion, and humor that had me in tears at one moment, bursting with laughter at another. A fan of hers since her days on TV’s “Six Feet Under,” I had no idea she could sing so beautifully (I could have listened all night to her “I Could Have Danced All Night”) or that she had the dimensionality to bring so complex a role to life. But she nails her every requirement, from the guttersnipe to the duchess.
She’ll win your heart (and, I hope, a few awards) as she struggles to pronounce “the rain in Spain”; bust your gut when her accent and vocabulary slip while trying to impress the Ascot crowd; make you melt when, wearing a fabulous red robe, she stands alone, psyching herself up for the ambassador’s ball; thrill you with her grace and beauty when she arrives there; rouse your best instincts when she rallies against the supercilious Higgins; and wet your eyes when she walks out on Higgins at the end.
The old question about whether Eliza Doolittle and Henry Higgins need to fall in love for the show to work still gets people worked up. Shaw was convinced there was no need for a romantic relationship between them and that Freddy would be more up Eliza’s alley than Henry. Having the actors playing Higgins and Eliza as close in age as these are (Hadden-Patton is 37 and Ambrose—who looks much younger—is 40) may make us want them to connect as lovers but Ambrose makes it clear (to me, at least) that all she really wants from Higgins is his respect, not his kisses. When even that proves so difficult to achieve, I have no problem with her leaving this egotist to stew in his own purgatory of self-doubt. As she sang to herself earlier, “Just you wait, ‘enry ‘iggins, just you wait.” Well, the wait is over and her words have come true.
As readers of this blog know, I rarely get this worked up over a show. And I'm aware my opinion isn't universal; a tiny number even disapprove strongly. But when a gusher like this My Fair Lady erupts and splashes all over me, what choice do I have but to gush myself?
Vivian Beaumont Theatre
10 Lincoln Center Plaza, NYC