Past Reviews

Sound Advice Reviews

My Fair Lady
Review by Rob Lester


Broadway Records

If you want to curl up and listen to one of the classic Broadway scores of all time, in a respectful and in many ways close to the original blueprint, then find yourself a room somewhere, far away from the cold night air, with one enormous chair. And, as long as I'm plagiarizing its lyric, I'll continue by saying that "Wouldn't It Be Loverly?"'s invented adjective fits the whole recording of the new My Fair Lady mounting. The sound quality is sumptuous, too. Those original, iconic orchestrations by Robert Russell Bennet and Phillip J. Lang from 62 years ago are as welcome as an old friend—a friend who doesn't seem to age and has an invigorating spirit and energy to burn.

While the renditions on the landmark original Broadway cast album on good old black vinyl are burned indelibly into my brain from countless listens since a childhood with cast album-purchasing parents, I have always snapped up and found pleasures in other renditions of the score by singers or accompanists and arrangers who tried something different. This physical collection and collective memory includes not only the interesting and subtle variations in the London cast LP with the same primary players and the film soundtrack with Rex Harrison as leading male Henry Higgins there, too, but also everything from the high-profile 1970s Broadway revival with luminous Christine Andreas to a studio cast on a bargain label which snagged the ensemble member (Lola Fisher) understudying leading fair lady Julie Andrews to the 1958 Mexican cast with a still-teenaged Placido Domingo in the company to a jazz instrumental album released shortly after the show opened with the pianist Andre Previn who would end up as conductor of the film version which came out eight years later. And with the many pop versions of the Lerner & Loewe songs that became standards, I have an open mind and open ears to many interpretations and variations and, frankly, never tire of the score that is masterpiece, whether the songs are done in or out of context, or if the next group up to bat on a recording follows carefully and closely in the famous footsteps or veers to a new path on the occasional or frequent fresh bit of phrasing or emphasis.

This newest in the long line of Ladies is satisfying while mostly conservative. Performances feel respectful and involved, while sometimes more dutiful than dazzling, carefully chewed on but not always bitten into with relish. While I don't think it can be called definitive or that it illuminates the characters in any major new way, I can't grouse much. After all, as Higgins says, "I'm 'An Ordinary Man,' the kind you never hear complain..." Well, maybe a little. I do wish there were more unexpected joys or brave flashes of individual panache, but the production doesn't take many chances. Nor does it opt for many changes.

Well, there is a different element for those whose experiences with live or recorded Henrys are restricted to Harrison or others who delivered the songs as he did, often talking on pitch or speaking the words, although all have genuine melody lines. The question that might be the elephant in the room is: Does this production's leading man, Harry Hadden-Paton, talk-sing or raise his voice in a more legato manner, sustaining notes as some performers with richer "chops" have done? The answer is that he doesn't evidence a big sound at all, but doesn't get by for long stretches without connecting the musical dots and hitting notes. (In a radio interview, Hadden-Paton said that in early rehearsals he was singing more, but found himself reverting to the Harrison way more and more). He's no clone, but at the time of recording (April 22-23), it doesn't sound fully and forcefully owned. Yet it has quite a few satisfying moments, especially in "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face," when he sounds truly wounded that Eliza would leave and marry Freddy. The vulnerability is touching and rare, a lovely choice replacing more bluster that would hide the hurt. One feels sorry for him and his implied regrets. And when she finally masters saying her much-practiced sentence to master the correct long "A" vowel sound, "The rain in spain stays mainly in the plain," he sounds superbly incredulous and thrilled, then appropriately joyful. Sounding younger than many a Higgins, he comes off somewhat refreshingly as someone not as long set in his ways as confirmed curmudgeon. But in "A Hymn to Him," humor is missed in the more exasperated moments of wishing women were more like men, whom he announces "are, by and large, a marvelous sex." Could director Bartlett Sher be a bit hesitant to present a no-holds-barred misogynist insulting and stereotyping females to audiences in this (thankfully) more enlightened era, sensitive though it is, and assuming that the chauvinism would be seen as alienating rather than comical? In his Broadway debut, Hadden-Paton may seem to be a constrained or reined-in Higgins.

As our "fair lady" in the show once known as both My Lady Eliza and the song-title line preceding the eventual name derived from the famed nursery rhyme (London Bridge Is Falling Down), Lauren Ambrose sings quite pleasingly with a pretty (if pretty non-distinctive) sound. She sings out and the voice is full and shows variety as the character expresses a range of moods and, of course, goes from Cockney brash to taught refinement, with the two delicious bursts of rage: just you wait 'til she does justice to "Just You Wait"; and she shows fire in "Show Me," though she doesn't seem to be as close to the end of her rope or on her last nerve when she needs to explode.

Norbert Leo Butz as Eliza's responsibility-resistant father is an acquired taste in his uber-exuberance and zip. I'm glad for the bursts of energy, but his two numbers have more razzle dazzle than the hallmarks of genuine British music hall. However, Butz is still a lively, big presence. Jordan Donica makes a fine Freddy, full-throated and appropriately besotted, thrilled to be "On the Street Where You Live." And, hooray! This time we get what's missing in many a recording of the number: the introductory verse added late in the writing game to be sure audiences recognized him from his rather brief prior scene. And we get the little dialogue in between sections of the number, too. Alan Corduner doesn't make an especially strong impact on CD as Higgins' pal Pickering, but he's more than acceptable. And, as for the other prominently billed star, Diana Rigg as Higgins' mom, note to newcomers to the show: she has no singing, and none of her dialogue is included. The chorus is solid and the orchestra, with the reliably sturdy and smart Ted Sperling in the driver's seat, is marvelous. Sperling is credited with additional arrangements. For me, the orchestra is often the star here, the most satisfying element on many tracks.

The longer playing time of the CD era allows for some treats not preserved in the LP days of yore: We get an especially effective track with dialogue and mood full of wistfulness when Eliza returns to her old stomping grounds, the track named for the location ("The Flower Market"), now one who trods with ladylike steps rather than stomping, unrecognized by her former cronies who see her only as a very refined upper-class woman. My fair lady indeed. This lead-in to a wonderfully wistful brief reprise of "Wouldn't It Be Loverly?" is a short but sweet highlight. We also can relish some orchestral music that lets us instrumentally revisit the stately Frederick Loewe melody of "The Ascot Gavotte" in "The Embassy Waltz" music for the ball where Eliza may be thought of as an exotic princess or at least a mysterious and magnetic woman of grace.

The CD booklet has many color photos of the production, a synopsis, credits, a page each for appreciations by Sperling and Douglas McGrath (a bookwriter currently represented on Broadway by Beautiful). It also has all the lyrics for this ageless gem, allowing us to follow along with the wit and craftsmanship of the man who wrote them—and the dialogue for this play adapted from George Bernard Shaw's play Pygmalion—a true giant in American musical theatre whose centennial we celebrate this year, the gifted Alan Jay Lerner. Long may his words continue to fill the air.

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