Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Chicago

My Fair Lady
Cadillac Palace Theatre

Also see John's reviews of This is How It Goes and The Little Dog Laughed

Lisa O'Hare and Christopher Cazenove
It surely won't be too risky a statement to suggest that My Fair Lady may be not only the best musical of the Golden Age, but the best musical ever. re there any others that succeed as theatre - that develop characters so fully and deliver such an engaging story - as well as they deliver the musical theatre entertainment values of song and dance? Not in my memory. Ironically, My Fair Lady, as much as it is an iconic example of classical American musical theater, subverts the genre as well. It neither opens nor closes with big ensemble numbers, the male lead is neither young nor particularly sexy and the romantic leads are neither exactly in love, nor do they even kiss. Starting with perhaps the best play ever to serve as source material for a musical, Shaw's Pygmalion, it offers the rich and distinctive characters of Higgins, Eliza and Alfred P. Doolittle as well as host of cleverly drawn supporting characters. The Shaw estate insisted on a certain amount of fidelity to Pygmalion, but could they have foreseen how seamlessly Alan Jay Lerner could supplement and complement the original? Gary Griffin's small-scale production of the piece for Chicago's Court Theater in 2002 gave it the respect worthy of Shaw. The National Theatre of Great Britain's production directed by Trevor Nunn now touring the U.S. offers the same caliber of acting but restores all the production values of this big, glossy musical.

A fully satisfying production of My Fair Lady is going to require an actor with the chops to play Professor Higgins, and this one has such an actor in Britain's Christopher Cazenove. He's able to remind us of Rex Harrison's portrayal preserved on film without imitating it. His Higgins is a bit more masculine, with a range of emotions that makes him more intimidating in his arrogance but sincere in his great love for language and his honest concern for Eliza. His fellow Brit and co-star Lisa O'Hare is an Eliza that can compete with any of them. She makes a believable, energetic and spunky 20-year-old Eliza —capable of jumping on and off the furniture of Higgins' study in "Just You Wait" and creating a consistent character through Eliza's transformation from flower girl to lady. Ms. O'Hare delivers her songs with a stunning soprano that needs no over-dubbing from the likes of Marni Nixon, now a member of this cast as Mrs. Higgins.

The stellar leads are completed by a consummately professional supporting cast of Broadway veterans. Tim Jerome's Alfred P. Doolittle is comical, yet a little darker and more realistically threatening to Eliza when encountering her at Higgins' house. Walter Charles is a charmingly dotty Colonel Pickering and Justin Bohon (Will Parker in Nunn's Oklahoma) a goofy and occasionally drunken Freddy. It's a delight to see Ms. Nixon in the cast, not only because of her connection to the film version as the off-screen singing voice of Eliza (and with Theodore Bikel, one of the only two surviving leads of the film), but more importantly for her winning portrayal here of the Professor Higgins' caustic mother. Barbara Marineau is empathetic as the housekeeper Mrs. Pearce. Despite the American cast supporting the two British leads, this is a very British production and the actors' uncompromising accents and dialects may be a challenge to those unfamiliar with the dialogue.

These performances are wrapped up in the sumptuous costume and set designs of Anthony Ward. His version of Higgins' study is a cluttered bi-level room stuffed with what appears to be a million books and the cast is costumed in multitudes of period outlets that must have taken several semis to transport.

Matthew Bourne's choreography is much in the spirit of English music halls and his steps are impressively executed by the 26-member ensemble directed by Fergus Logan. As enjoyable as it is, the dancing's light and occasionally silly tone fights the story at times, which, after all, covers some rather significant questions of class and poverty.

Sir Trevor Nunn clearly respects this piece as a classic, and has been judicious in his approach to it. While he does present slightly darker interpretations of Higgins and Doolittle in a few scenes, and visually expands a few other scenes (the opening scene at Covent Garden and his taking "Show Me" into the London Underground), he refrains from any superfluous directorial showing-off. If the piece is dated in any way in comparison to the better musical theatre of the present, it may be in its willingness to interrupt the story with extended production numbers of songs written to be hits out of the context of the show). No matter. We can see Pygmalion for a purer presentation of the story or, if given the chance, a scaled down production of this musical like Griffin's 2002 version. All have their merits, but this tour offers as good a reproduction of the piece with all its Golden Age production and entertainment values intact as one could possibly imagine.

My Fair Lady will play the Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph, Chicago, through February 3, 2008. Tickets available at all Broadway in Chicago box offices and through Ticketmaster. The tour continues through June, 2008.

Photo: Joan Marcus

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-- John Olson

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