Back in 2003, the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park mounted a production of My Fair Lady employing just ten actors, a two-piano orchestration, and a quaint unit set. Cincinnati now plays host to the new national tour of this classic show. Unlike Playhouse's production, the tour uses a cast of thirty, varied and enormous sets and a full orchestra. It is a testament to the piece that it can be effective and entertaining within the confines of either approach. The national tour playing at the Aronoff Center currently is a non-stop theatrical romp that fills the stage with dancing and stagecraft. The smart story and marvelous score that has made the show a favorite for years is in good hands, thanks to a solid cast of theater veterans.
My Fair Lady is a musical adaptation of George Bernard Shaw's play, Pygmalion. The story takes place in England in 1912 and focuses on Professor Henry Higgins, who bets his newfound friend Colonel Pickering that he can pass off a lowly flower girl as a refined socialite merely by changing her speech and appearance. Eliza Doolittle is the coarse young waif Higgins chooses after accusing her of murdering the English language, and she proves to be quite the project for the two phonetics experts.
My Fair Lady is one of the rare instances where a musical comes close to or succeeds in surpassing the quality of its original source material. Much of this success, however, comes from sticking closely to Shaw's thoughtful, intelligent, and poignant story. The book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner supply clever wit, unexpected humor and layered emotional subtext. While the ending may strike some as ambiguous and weakly supported, the show is structurally sound in every other way. The music by Frederick Loewe is expressively tuneful, with quick paced numbers celebrating self-discovery, as well as tender ballads with soaring melodies and quirky charm songs. The score from this 1956 Tony Winner includes numerous now-classics such as "Wouldn't It Be Loverly," "The Rain in Spain," "I Could Have Danced All Night," "On The Street Where You Live," "Show Me," "Get Me To the Church On Time," and "I've Grown Accustomed To Your Face." My Fair Lady is one of the near perfect examples of an old-fashioned musical classic. This national tour is a replication of the UK revival produced by Cameron Mackintosh and the National Theatre of Great Britain that played in London and on tour in England a few years back. The two leads for the US tour come from the English productions of the show.
As Eliza, Lisa O'Hare is splendid. She possesses a delightful singing voice and demonstrates spirited determination throughout. She convincingly transforms from the rough and raw Cockney flower girl to lady of refined elegance. Christopher Cazenove is an especially harsh and brutish Henry Higgins, and he garners lots of laughs with many of his lines. Unfortunately, there are times when it is difficult to understand Mr. Cazenove (which is humorous given the character's profession), though the poorly designed or executed (difficult to tell which one) sound design for the tour may have something to do with the problem.
Walter Charles is winningly appealing as the stately yet buffoonish Colonel Pickering, and Alma Cuervo provides yet another polished performance as Mrs. Pearce. As Eliza's father, Tim Jerome is suitably humorous, though he seemed a bit out of synch with the orchestra at times on opening night. CCM grad Justin Bohon returns to Cincinnati in style as the fiery lovelorn Freddy in an impressive turn. And, what a delight it is to see Sally Ann Howes, who succeeded Julie Andrews as Eliza in the original Broadway production, convey such wit and class as Mrs. Higgins. The supporting cast provides abundant energy and skill as well.
Director Trevor Nunn (Les Miserables, Cats) fills the stage with constant action, and there is a precision to his direction that is admirable. This is certainly not the most heartfelt or romantic My Fair Lady, but it is one demonstrating much theatrical magic and stagecraft. Choreographer Matthew Bourne supplies fluid dances in his unique style. While a few of the production numbers seem somewhat overblown, they are certainly crowd-pleasers. The US tour is redirected by Shaun Kerrison and the dances restaged by Fergus Logan. Conductor James Lowe leads a talented fifteen-piece orchestra.
The enormous set design by Anthony Ward uses four proscenium arches surrounded by pillars and topped by a Victorian style semi-circle. Multiple set pieces for the show's many settings are presented with intricate detail, including an especially wonderful rendering of Higgins' study. Mr. Ward also supplies the praiseworthy costumes, which are highlighted by Eliza's two eye-catching gowns for the racetrack and the ball. The lighting by David Hershey conveys mood and atmosphere effectively.
The national tour of My Fair Lady just began a few weeks ago, and some of the performances and technical execution may need a bit more time to reach its maximum potential. Even at this point, however, this version of the respected classic is an entertaining, well-performed, and nicely packaged presentation which will please most theatergoers. My Fair Lady continues at the Aronoff Center in Cincinnati through October 7, 2007. Tickets can be ordered by calling (800) 294-1816.