Wouldn’t it be loverly to have Lerner & Loewe’s magical My Fair Lady back on Broadway? And wouldn’t it be “warm and tender” if it were a tasteful staging which captured the style and grace of the fabled original? Well, Bartlett Sher’s new staging at the Vivian Beaumont is and does. The Lincoln Center Theater My Fair Lady is absobloominutely loverly, and you can quote me on that.
My Fair Lady has long held prime space on the Best Broadway Musicals of the Golden Age list. It’s not as groundbreaking as Carousel, as moving as South Pacific nor as rambunctious as Guys and Dolls, to name three illustrious predecessors; but it was exceptionally and exquisitely well written. Back in 1956, Lerner and Loewe took the advances that their peers—most especially Rodgers and Hammerstein—had developed and assembled what was instantly hailed as the altogether perfect musical. This can be seen, and grandly so, in Sher’s lavish new production. With all the wares on display, it becomes clear that in this case the play’s the thing; “the play” meaning not only the songs and script, but G. B. Shaw’s Pygmalion upon which it is built.
That has not always been quite enough. My Fair Lady first returned to the Rialto in a carefully recreated 20th Anniversary production, which was bright and shining in material but outdated in style. (One remembers how jaw-droppingly passé it looked when Freddy Eynsford-Hill came out to serenade his fair lady, with the street where she lived represented by a crumpled curtain with painted-on lampposts.) The show returned in 1981 in antiquarian shape, with a 73-year-old leading man (Rex Harrison, on his last legs). It fared even worse in 1993, with one of those brilliant young London directors superimposing a radicalized conception. So My Fair Lady, brilliant writing and all, is not exactly fail-safe.
Mount the show with impeccable taste, utmost respect and sufficient resources, and all is well on Wimpole Street. Sher is an acknowledged wizard at this sort of thing, having previously joined with André Bishop of Lincoln Center Theater and music master Ted Sperling for South Pacific and The King and I. (If these were both superb, the partnership began even more auspiciously with the original production of Adam Guettel’s The Light in the Piazza.)
Sher returns with his long-time design team, Michael Yeargan (sets), Catherine Zuber (costumes) and Donald Holder (lighting), plus choreographer Christopher Gattelli. The team takes full advantage of the vast confines of the Beaumont, with the ability to give us a stageful of scenery but also widely open vistas as desired. Yeargan dresses the side aisles of the theater with pastel views of London rooftops, and it sets one aglow even before we hear the clarion call of those eight tutti notes heralding the sterling overture.
Warm and tender, yes, tiptop entertainment suitable for all audiences and sure to send them beaming to their choc’late box. There is a tad missing, though; think of the irrepressible sparkle that radiated from the stage in both South Pacific and The King and I. (I won’t say it, but I’ll spell it: K-E-L-L-I.) We don’t get that here. Lauren Ambrose, the Six Feet Under regular who had been announced to star in Sher’s aborted 2012 production of Funny Girl, does perfectly well as the draggletailed guttersnipe Eliza Doolittle. Perfectly well, yes; but she doesn’t send the necessary chills of enchantment past the curtain line. (And if you want to know what I mean, head to the Barrymore to watch Katrina Lenk magnetize the crowd in The Band’s Visit).
“Just You Wait, ’enry ’iggins” gives Eliza a ferocious showstopper, furnishing the singer with lightning bolts to hurl to the back row. Ambrose doesn’t, perhaps because she is forced to deliver the song while positively loping through the 27A Wimpole Street set, which turns and turns and turns as the heroine traipses in and about and up and down staircases. Maybe the number would land better if they just let her stand there and sing it? She is doubtless racking up an impressive step count on her Fitbit, at least.
Harry Haden-Paton makes a strong local debut as Higgins, that exacting professor of the mother tongue. Considerably younger than his predecessors in the role, the actor—who has numerous West End credits but is best known hereabouts as Bertie Pelham, who finally makes an honest woman of Lady Edith in the final reel of Downton Abbey—demonstrates the charm beneath the curmudgeon. This makes the production a slightly more romantic Fair Lady; one can see, at least, how opposites might indeed theoretically attract.
The large cast is bolstered by Allan Corduner as a fine Pickering, albeit 30 years older than “confirmed old bachelor” Higgins; Tony-winner Diana Rigg, charming her way through as Henry’s upper-class mother; and Norbert Leo Butz as the freethinking, do-little dustman. Norbert commands the crowd as always, although one might protest that he’s got a way to go before settling down into these two-songs-and-a-scene roles.
Unlike other recent revivals that have come along, the show is performed more or less as written; when everything is nigh perfect to begin with, it’s treacherous to make changes. Sher leaves his ending open to interpretation, which is fine and good. One wonders, though, who chose to present a bevy of male dancers dressed—or rather undressed—in women’s underthings, some of them sporting 21st century body tattoos. Neither Edwardian nor Shavian, old boy, nor likely to the taste of Alfred P. Doolittle. (Lerner’s stage direction simply states “the crowd pulls out the stopper and has a whopper.”) But no matter; if the estates don’t complain, why should we?
The invincible strength of the evening is demonstrated when Eliza sings “I’ll never know what made it so exciting.” You can actually hear what makes it so exciting; that full-bodied orchestra, playing the original orchestrations for all they’re worth. And they’re worth a lot. Just listen to those bubbling reeds accompanying her in “I Could Have Danced All Night,” and to all those strings which lift Eliza soaring. Lincoln Center gives us the full string complement that Russell Bennett devised for his 29-piece ensemble. That’s fifteen string players. Nowadays, it’s rare to find fifteen musicians in a Broadway pit, altogether.
My Fair Lady opened April 19, 2018, at the Vivian Beaumont Theater. Tickets and information: ltc.org