London My Fair Lady in First Rate Form
Also see Bob's review of Engaging Shaw
Here are a few of the moments that make this My Fair Lady such a delightful experience:
When Higgins tells Eliza of the glory of the language to encourage her to push on during his punishing lessons, Lisa O'Hare's Eliza's face and eyes light up, and we see that the breakthrough that is about to occur is not only the culmination of weeks of hard work. The blooming Eliza is not merely the creation of Henry Higgins, but she has a soul which has been touched that produces the proper pronunciation of "The Rain in Spain." Much later in the second act, when the stubborn Higgins is unable to allow himself to say the loving words which Eliza desperately needs to hear, the frustrated Eliza tells Henry that he can turn on the recordings that he has made of her voice whenever he misses her. When Higgins responds, "I can't turn your soul on," his words pierce us because, having been permitted to see Eliza's soul, we understand why this misogynistic bachelor has fallen in love with Eliza. Further building on our heightened awareness of the text, we know that Higgins is unconvinced of his following words, "I have my own soul. My own spark of divine fire."
Justin Bohon certainly sings "On the Street Where You Live" with lyrical beauty, but he also displays the callow and immature nature of Freddy. While Henry's espousal of the dire future that Eliza would face with Freddy remains part of his arsenal of arguments to win over Eliza, it also makes it clear that Henry is right. This allows that Henry is also truly concerned for Eliza and puts us more firmly on his side.
Tim Jerome's Alfred P. Doolittle is not quite the totally ebullient and delightful wastrel. While he's certainly amusing as he ingratiates himself, there is a dimension of wanton cruelty in his behavior. And when he tells Eliza that he wouldn't advise her to come to his wedding, and that he will likely never see her again, his words sting, and an audible "ooh" rises up from the audience.
Director Trevor Nunn has appended a new behavior for Eliza and Doolittle at the finish which delightfully suggests that Eliza is completely Henry's equal in their relationship, as well as just what that relationship will be like to the pleasure of both. It is in keeping with the more enlightened and equal view of women that has evolved over the last fifty years.
Christopher Cazenove effortlessly captures the talk song style in which Lerner and Loewe composed this score, and his diction is sensational. He makes the words "No one taught him take instead of tike" ("Why Can't The English") as clear as a bell. His acting is rich in detail. When he sings of "a large Wagnerian mother ... ," Cazenove places his arms akimbo to delightfully make us see her. And finally, Cazenove is very moving in his on-the-verge-of-tears rendition of "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face." Blasphemy it may be (and I did see the original Broadway cast in 1956), but this is likely the most moving version of this glorious song that I have ever heard. A bit portly, there is nothing romantic in the appearance or performance of Cazenove. However, rather than detracting, his very appearance suggests interesting back story possibilities.
Lisa O'Hare is a very lovely and very funny Eliza Doolittle. At the start of the Ascot scene, she is so delighted with her beautiful dress (black and purple with a touch of white) and her matching beautifully outlandish hat, Eliza exudes a hilariously misplaced confidence. O'Hare has a lovely voice with which she builds "I Could Have Danced All Night" to a thrilling climax.
Walter Charles' strong, operatic baritone lends extra zip to his "You Did It" duet with Cazenove. Marni Nixon (Mrs. Higgins) and Barbara Marineau (Mrs. Pearce) lend first rate support.
Matthew Bourne brings his distinctive touch to the choreography. It seems to me that the multiple settings (accomplished with minimal design effects) for "Get Me to the Church on Time" are driven by his choreography, which turns this number into a mini-story of its own. Bourne, who gets credit for "musical staging" and choreography is likely accountable for a similar, but in this case, distracting strategy for the "On the Street Where You Live" reprise. Did you know that there was an underground in 1912? Bourne's choreography for "With a Little Bit of Luck (complete with the Stomp-like use of garbage can lids) put me in mind of his choreography for "Step in Time" for the stage version of Mary Poppins. And his use of horse-like movements during the "Ascot Gavotte" is arresting.
There is no overture (and I wish there were). The new orchestrations by William David Brohn do not stand out from Robert Russell Bennett's original to these ears. The 15-piece orchestra sounds adequate (with today's electronics, it is difficult to judge orchestra size by ear). The opening night performance at NJPAC clocked in at a very quick and comfortable two hours and fifty-two minutes.
This is an imaginative and, overall, most successful production of a great American musical. The producers and seemingly slapdash, casual writers of too many new musicals on, but too small for, Broadway would do well to study this one. Theatergoers in the twenty-four cities which this My Fair Lady is visiting are very lucky, indeed.
My Fair Lady continues performances through March 23 at Prudential Hall at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC), One Center Street, N Newark, N.J., 07102. Box Office: 888-466-5722; online: www.njpac.org for performance schedule.
My Fair Lady book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner, musical by Frederick Loewe, adapted from Pygmalion by Bernard Shaw, directed by Trevor Nunn (redirected by Shaun Kerrison), Choreography and Musical Staging by Matthew Bourne (Choreography restaged by Fergus Logan)