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My Fair Lady

Theatre Reviews by Matthew Murray

Kelli O'Hara and Kelsey Grammer.
Photo by Chris Lee for the New York Philharmonic.

The most remarkable transformation in the New York Philharmonic concert of My Fair Lady, which is playing at Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall through Saturday night, is not the one you might expect.

The metamorphosis of Eliza Doolittle from a dirty flower girl to a refined lady is, this time around anyway, nothing special. Oh, there is as always a lot of screaming and stomping and singing, mostly about bizarre Spanish weather conditions. (I assume you've heard where the precipitation there is usually confined?) Yet none of that coalesces into the rush of excitement you experience when someone not only achieves what you thought impossible, but triumphs over the harshest adversity.

Instead, you feel that a few minutes later, when Eliza, left alone for the night by the teachers who are grooming her to prim and proper perfection, leaps atop her makeshift bed and sings to all the skies of her seconds-long trip across the dance floor with the man she didn't know was the man of her dreams. It's not the Cockney girl who's learned correct English who's transfixing us, but the automaton who's learned against all odds to feel.

The woman who play her is Kelli O'Hara, stepping so comfortably into the shoes (and onto the settee) once graced by Julie Andrews that you might have trouble hearing the process of anointing as it unfolds before you. But as O'Hara claims the stage, and refuses to relinquish it until the evening runs its course, she also takes possession of you more completely than she managed in her other first-rank performances in shows like Sweet Smell of Success, My Life With Albertine, and The Light in the Piazza. The singer-actress has, at last, become a star.

Brian Dennehy and members of the company
Photo by Chris Lee for the New York Philharmonic.

It doesn't happen a moment too soon, either. Before O'Hara's ascendance, the two things onstage making the strongest case for life are the Philharmonic itself, under the furiously flying baton of Rob Fisher (late of Encores!), and a song-and-dance man named Brian Dennehy, who's undergoing his own unique apotheosis as Eliza's poor, twisted-morals father Alfred. That one of the nation's prime interpreters of Miller and O'Neill has hidden such nimble singing and dancing chops is itself amazing, if a little frightening. Unfortunately, the rest of this My Fair Lady does not live up to this vaunted triumvirate.

Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe's 1956 musical version of Shaw's Pygmalion requires a scrupulous attention to detail and passionate love of language that any concert presentation, especially one with a book "adaptation" by David Ives (which, at least here, seems to involve cutting most of the character out of the characters), will be hard-pressed to deliver. Elaborate costumes are nice (Gail Baldoni's created any number of fine ones), rigorously rehearsed staging and choreography (by James Brennan and Peggy Hickey respectively) always help, and yes, there's that wonderfully oversized orchestra playing Loewe's tunes with a gusto and precision the score will likely not see matched for many years.

But the show's pointed soul and energy cannot be easily kept intact if O'Hara's costar is determined to vanish into the wood paneling of the concert hall around him. As Henry Higgins, the grumpy but brilliant phoneticist who coaches Eliza to glittering success, Grammer is low-key to the point of needing a defibrillator. He's neither a sympathetic force for good in Georgian London society nor a fire-breathing monster who forces Eliza into submission. Grammer's only love seems to be for some of librettist-lyricist Lerner's choicer speeches about English's critical component of the human condition, and he speaks those more simply, quietly, and movingly than he dares approach anything else.

Though Higgins's partner in crime, Colonel Pickering, sings much less and fulfills mostly an advisory role, Charles Kimbrough fills him out with a penguin-like set of vocal and physical mannerisms that ensure he stands out for Eliza (who sees him as a fitter father figure than either her own or Higgins) and for us. Grammer looks and sounds more like an annoyed librarian than a crusader against "the cold-blooded murder of the English tongue," to quote one of the many songs Grammer chooses to stroll through rather than attack head on.

Other performers do similarly circuitous, if more effective work - Philippe Castagner sings robustly as Eliza's upper-crust paramour Freddy, even if he can't break through his inherently wooden outer shell; and Marni Nixon uncorks just enough dry wit to make it through the role of Higgins's strong-willed mother. But even in a concert setting, you want to feel these people coming alive, as though everyone is just itching to pick sides in the battle of the sexes.

Dennehy is a dynamo who makes major music-hall magic out of Alfred's "With a Little Bit of Luck" and especially the celebratory last hurrah of "Get Me to the Church on Time," in which he goes off to face that most frightening of futures: a trip down the aisle. As he kicks up his heels, romances half the women of London, and drinks himself silly with half the men, you finally begin to understand where Eliza's spunk, individuality, and most importantly her heart came from in the first place.

O'Hara lets loose again in a surprising highlight, "Show Me," in which the rebuked Eliza decides it's her turn to call the shots, and insists that Freddy shut up long enough to give her what she needs. It's then you realize that the girl has become a woman who won't take no for an answer; it's also handily clear that O'Hara and Dennehy, like their characters, are kindred spirits who have been allowed to regain their corporeal forms. Watching them solidify into beings you'd never have considered close fits even a week ago, is the real joy of this My Fair Lady. Too much else, however gorgeously played and sung it might be, remains insubstantial.

My Fair Lady
Through March 10
Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes
Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, 10 Lincoln Center Plaza at 65th Street
Tickets: 212.875.5030

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