Now and again, a classic musical presents such an ideal vehicle for a contemporary star that their union seems almost inevitable. Think of, in recent years, Patti LuPone in Gypsy, or Bette Midler in Hello, Dolly!, or Kelli O’Hara in pretty much anything.
Laura Benanti, the latest performer to bless us with so dreamy a pairing, arrives in Lincoln Center Theater’s exquisite revival of My Fair Lady, ironically, as a replacement—for Lauren Ambrose, a gifted actress and (as many discovered for the first time) singer with relatively little experience in musical theater. If Ambrose’s turn as Eliza Dolittle was a revelation, Benanti’s is just as thrilling as an affirmation, not only of the assets her fans have long treasured—her elegance and sharp wit; her willingness to wax goofy, with the adroitness that only the smartest actors and comedians can manage; and of course, that glorious, silvery soprano—but of the most precocious ingenues’ ability to evolve, and continue to find new richness and depth in an assortment of characters.
Indeed, if Benanti was not quite as obvious a choice for Eliza as, say, LuPone was for Momma Rose (in a production of Gypsy that co-starred Benanti, and earned both Tony Awards), that’s because My Fair Lady’s leading ladies have traditionally been younger. Julie Andrews was in her early 20s when she introduced the role, as was Melissa Errico when she was cast in the last Broadway revival, more than 25 years ago. (Let’s not address, for now, the thirtysomething Audrey Hepburn, whose casting in the film adaptation was a disservice for other reasons.)
But director Bartlett Sher, whose flair for finding fresh resonance in Golden Age musicals while honoring their tradition has made him our best current interpreter of the form, wanted from the start to focus more on class and gender as factors that separate the musical’s flower-girl heroine from Professor Henry Higgins, the phonetics expert who determines to make a proper lady of her by teaching her to speak like one. If Sher’s My Fair Lady has reaped deserved praise for speaking to our time—some of it from critics who have deemed other recent revivals regressive—his staging owes much of its power to its emphasis on the 63-year-old musical’s even older source material: Pygmalion, the work of a playwright who took a progressive stance on gender relations, and much else, long before today’s feminist advocates were twinkles in their parents’ eyes.
Benanti serves Shaw’s original vision, and his wit, with as much zest as her predecessor—and, it must be said, more palpable joy. Where Ambrose’s Eliza, at least during the preview I caught, seemed to gain confidence (vocally, in particular) as the story progressed—cannily showing us the character’s own growing pains on her path to self-actualization—Benanti’s Eliza is more playful and feisty from the get-go, and wickedly funny, whether imagining herself conversing with the king in “Just You Wait” or introducing herself to the cream of British society, then spilling the beans on her low-born kin, at Ascot’s opening horse race. The toll of this Eliza’s journey is most keenly felt in her indignation and, eventually, fury in later scenes, when she reveals her frustration with being disrespected and objectified by Henry, in exchanges Benanti makes as biting as her comedic flourishes are hilarious.
The performance is of a piece with others in the current company, those of both additional new cast members and Sher’s original players, who seem to enjoy these colleagues as much as the audience does. Harry Hadden-Paton’s Henry, superb in previews, seems invigorated by his new sparring partner; there’s a new spring in his missteps, a more muscular and relaxed comic punch in his pompous preening and childish fumbling, and more poignance as well. Allan Corduner’s Colonel Pickering also seems to dig into the more loosey-goosey moments with added relish.
They could scarcely have better company than recruits such as Danny Burstein and Rosemary Harris, predictably marvelous stepping into the roles of Alfred P. Dolittle and Mrs. Higgins. Harris imbues the latter with an understated wryness that complements both Bennati’s and Hadden-Paton’s performances beautifully; Burstein brings exuberant showmanship to Eliza’s garrulous deadbeat dad, mining the character’s broad humor and the astute cleverness Henry spots in him. Another newcomer, Christian Dante White, is enormously endearing as Eliza’s rather less worldwise young suitor, Freddy Eynsford-Hill, combining a wide-eyed, goofy sweetness and a robust bari-tenor.
The production retains the directorial and design elements that made it both ravishing and wise, with marching suffragettes and would-be cockney showgirls sustaining the expansive view that first brought Eliza to life. It is loverly indeed to have her back with us, in such splendid form.
My Fair Lady opened April 19, 2018, at the Vivian Beaumont Theater. Re-reviewed: January, 2019. Tickets and information: ltc.org