My Fair Lady by Alan J. Lerner and Frederick Loewe
At the Lincoln Center Theatre
BSonArts: Rating: A-
Show-Score Rating: 90
Move over Sutton Foster and Indina Menzel; there is a new Broadway musical leading lady who can transform a good production into a “must see.” That’s Lauren Ambrose and she not only has the voice for Eliza Doolittle in the Lincoln Center Theatre production of “My Fair Lady,” but she also demonstrates how a masterful actor can bring new dimensions to a role that makes an entire revival a new experience.
Ms. Ambrose treats Eliza as a very real young woman discovering who she once was and who she has become. As we watch her come to these realizations, we become totally absorbed into the book of the musical, a pretty rare experience for a pre-1970s show. Ambrose’s Eliza is linked more to the female characters in the classic plays from the turn of the last century — think “A Dolls House” or “The Seagull “— than an ingénue in a 1960s musical. Of course, the source material for this Broadway classic is a play from that same period, George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion.”
Ms. Ambrose does not sacrifice the humor in the show; she is charmingly befuddled by the demands made on her by the insensitive and self-centered Professor Henry Higgins in the first act. But after her transformation at the start of the second act, we see a woman struggling with her identity, not fitting into her previous world and a stranger to her new world. With the help of director Bartlett Sher’s minor tampering with the original ending, we are uplifted as she takes control of her future with a new confidence and a true sense of self – not too far from what Mr. Shaw had in mind in “Pygmalion.”
Mr. Sher has an affinity for this type of musical theatre heroine. His previous two Lincoln Center musical revivals had similar central characters: Nellie Forbush in “South Pacific” and Anna Leonowens in “The King and I.” He also has an affinity for taking an old-fashioned musical and rediscovering what “makes it memorable.” As with the two Rodgers and Hammerstein revivals, this production is quite traditional but very stylish. Mr. Sher has a wonderful ability to reproduce the original delight with a fresh vision.
It’s interesting to compare this revival with the recent, and far less successful, revival of R&H’s “Carousel.” It comes down to good choices. Mr. Sher and set designer Michael Yeargan have incorporated a massive turntable into the set for Professor Higgin’s home, almost as a tribute to Oliver Smith’s much lauded and, at the time, dazzling use of turntables in the original production. Director and designer make the set changes almost a work of choreography.
The actual choreography by Christopher Gattelli is a mixed bag. “My Fair Lady” is not much of a dance show, and Messrs. Sher and Gattelli have even minimized the dance in all but one number. But that one number, “Get Me To the Church on Time,” is a show-stopper. Sher and costume designer Catherine Zuber once again hark back to the original production for the “Ascot Gavotte,” recreating a vision of one of Cecil Beaton’s signature costume achievements. Unfortunately, Gattelli’s staging of that number never really captures the humor of the overly restrained highbrow responses that the snooty upper-class show as they watch a genteel horse-race.
Harry Hadden-Paton comes to the role of Henry Higgins with the appropriate credentials: a British actor trained at the London Academy of Music and Drama, most recently seen in this country as a suitor of Lady Edith Crawley on Downton Abbey. He is a quick-tongued Higgins who has no trouble capturing the professor’s insensitivity and self-absorption. However, he rarely allows us to see the humor behind the bluster. Alan Jay Lerner’s lyrics are full of delightful twists in songs like “Why Can’t the English?” and “I’m an Ordinary Man.” Hadden-Paton shows us the arrogance, but not the wit.
Norbert Leo Butz is one of the most talented comic actors on the New York stage and he brings every bit of that skill to Alfred P. Doolittle. But Doolittle is a blustery old man and Butz is neither old nor blustery. Even so, he manages to create a believable Cockney good-for-nothing. The role of Higgins’ friend, Colonel Pickering, is the least developed among the main characters; he is essentially “the straight man” and Allan Corduner does as much as is possible to convince us he is a compassionate and reasonable foil to Higgins’ arrogance. Rounding out the leading roles is Diana Rigg as Higgins’ mother. In contrast to the miscasting of Butz, Ms. Rigg exudes the stoic compassion that her rather minor role demands. Jordan Donica has the creamy voice for Eliza’s suitor, hanging out “On the Street Where You Live.” Lerner and Loewe really did not give his character much more than that lovely number.
In the end, it is Laura Ambrose’s Eliza Doolittle that makes this revival special. All of the elements that Ms. Ambrose exploits are in the book and lyrics; but she brings unique insight and deeply felt emotion in expressing them. We feel for this Eliza and we revel in her discoveries.