MY FAIR LADY
Spectacle supersedes Shaw in Lincoln Center’s overscaled revival of Lerner & Lowe’s MY FAIR LADY. Still, Loewe’s marvelous score and Learner’s ageless lyrics prevail. With the beloved musical based on George Bernard Shaw’s well-known PYGMALION tale of the common, Cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle and the elitist, phonetics professor Henry Higgins, director Bartlett Sher seeks again at Lincoln Center to create both an expansive production of a musical theater classic and a contemporarily insightful version untried before. This approach worked marvelously with SOUTH PACIFIC (2008) then less successfully with THE KING AND I (2015). This MY FAIR LADY places a distant third.
Sher’s previous musical revivals at the Vivian Beaumont, set on sweeping Pacific beaches or in grand Asian palaces, fit the stage, the largest on Broadway (Radio City and the Met being the only two in Manhattan larger). But aside from the famous ensemble scenes in MY FAIR LADY - Covent Garden, the Ascot race, and Eliza’s debut ball -the story largely occurs in private chambers, mostly Higgins' library. Set designer Michael Yeargan constructs a huge, two-story library on rotating stage that gets hauled from upstage to down and back again repeatedly. The behemoth’s to and fro is distracting, and its scale inappropriate for the intimate battle of wills that eventually builds between Eliza and Higgins. This isn’t to suggest MY FAIR LADY is a chamber musical, but it’s a narrative that transacts in chambers. At the Vivian Beaumont, much of it floats in space.
Decorative elements of Higgins’ domain are peculiar. The library is anchored at one end by a huge, double-story Palladian-style window, more appropriate to a Hamptons Macmansion than to a proper Victorian household. Another oddity is Higgins’ library walls are adorned with abstract paintings, awkwardly mid-century Abstract Expressionism, perhaps a hint that Higgins is a “modern man” cut from Shaw cloth.
But in Sher’s version, Henry Higgins isn’t particularly complicated. (Jonathan Pryce in 2002 in the West End ingeniously played Higgins as a Freudian neurotic.) Shaw’s Higgins can be downright mean, sexist and crass. Instead, with the open-faced, boyishly handsome West End favorite Harry Hadden-Paton (best known to American audiences for “Downton Abbey”) this Higgins is part Mama’s boy, part “I’ll never grow up” Peter Pan. This Higgins lacks acid: when his sidekick Colonel Pickering wonders what will happen to Eliza if Higgins’ efforts to transform her fail, Hadden-Paton’s delivers Higgins retort that he throw her back “to the gutter” like a throwaway line.
Lauren Ambrose is fine as Eliza. Her singing voice, rather small for the Beaumont, is versatile and effectively navigates the change in Liza’s diction and emotions from a wistful naïf in “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?” in Cockney in the opening scene in Covent Garden to an angry sophisticate in “Without You” in the Queen’s English near the play’s end. In dialogue her Cockney accent sounded so accurate, some of her lines were incompressible, and sadly her timing was off in delivery of the Eliza’s famous “move your bloomin’ arse” line at the Ascot race
Norbert Leo Butz as Eliza’s father Alfred P. Doolittle hams it up with “A Little Bit of Luck” then steals the show with the Act 2 showstopper “Get Me To The Church On Time” The dance is fine elsewhere -including “The Rain in Spain “ with just Eliza, Higgins and Pickering - but Gattelli pulls out all the stops in “Church on Time”, with all of Doolittle’s tavern buddies, floozies, even some in drag, in a rousing, glorious, bawdy ensemble. When Gattelli choreographs the ensemble - almost three dozen performers in a single dancing queue midstage right diagonal to downstage left led by Butz - for the crescendo notes of “Church", MY FAIR LADY achieves for one giddy, heady moment, the transportive magic that musical theatre is all about.
In other supporting parts, Allen Corduner plays Colonel Pickering unremarkably: wanting is a kindred affection Pickering has for Eliza. Veteran Diana Rigg plays Higgins‘ mother pretty much as Diana Rigg. Jordan Donica, as Freddy, the aristocrat who proposes marriage to Eliza, executes the famous “On the Street Where You Live” with an obliging tenor.
Catherine Zuber’s costumes are richly detailed, especially for the upper-crust attire for the Ascot scene where they curiously resemble, beyond homage, Cecil Beaton’s smashing wardrobe in the 1963 film version. She costumes Abrams boldly in a nude-colored gown that is unexpectedly Art-Deco in style for Eliza’s formal social debut at the embassy ball.
Besides “Church on Time”, Sheer’s other spectacular production number is “The Embassy Waltz” which opens Act 2 with the full orchestra playing on stage. Kudos to sound designer Marc Salzberg who oversaw an extra system, apart from the pit, but Yeager’s set is head-scratching. Although the story occurs in 1913, the orchestra is arranged stage left in three tiers, with solid-faced music stands in front of each musician, creating an impression of a night club with a dance band in an Astaire and Rogers 1930s musical rather than a Victoria ballroom.
Lincoln Center’s MY FAIR LADY seldom fails to impress, even if its parts seem non-integrated. Under the musical direction of Ted Sperling the Loewe melodies can’t help but satisfy, recalling sweet memories of an original cast LP vinyl album many American households wore out on stereo consoles in the late 1950s and 60s.
But, at its core, this MY FAIR LADY fails to elicit any empathy for either Higgins or Eliza. These are the could-have-been lovers of musical theatre, the odd couple, a pair of eccentrics from opposite ends of the social spectrum perhaps destined to wage an endless war-of-the-sexes , but there’s not much authentic conflict here to care about. At the play’s famous ending, when Higgins demands of Eliza “where the devil are my slippers” Sher’s Eliza rips a page from Ibsen’s playbook for Nora. This Eliza has evolved into a person with an emotional sophistication that this Higgins hasn’t realized: Eliza is more of a woman, than Higgins a man. Sher’s MY FAIR LADY takes a big, modern step forward by dramatizing “why can’t a woman be more like a man” by upending what Higgins meant, layering the classic with a twist laden with contemporary value.
That’s fine and good, but the rapturous swell of the final chords of “I Could Have Danced All Night” at curtain seems a bit incongruous. It’s bittersweet, surely, but Shaw’s ambiguity is more romantic.