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Broadway Reviews

My Fair Lady

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - April 19, 2018

My Fair Lady Book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner. Music by Frederick Loewe. Adapted from George Bernard Shaw’s play and Gabriel Pascal’s motion picture “Pygmalion.” Directed by Bartlett Sher. Choreographed by Christopher Gattelli. Music direction by Ted Sperling. Sets by Michael Yeargan. Costumes by Catherine Zuber. Lighting by Donald Holder. Sound by Mark Salzberg. Musical arrangements by Robert Russell Bennett & Phil Lang. Dance arrangements by Trude Rittman. Hair and wigs by Tom Watson. Cast: Lauren Ambrose, Harry Hadden-Paton, Norbert Leo Butz, Diana Rigg, Allan Corduner, Jordan Donica, Linda Mugleston, Manu Narayan, Cameron Adams, Shereen Ahmed, Kerstin Anderson, Heather Botts, John Treacy Egan, Rebecca Eichenberger, SuEllen Estey, Christopher Faison, Steven Trumon Gray, Adam Grupper, Michael Halling, Joe Hart, Sasha Hutchings, Kate Marilley, Liz McCartney, Justin Lee Miller, Rommel Pierre O’Choa, Keven Quillon, JoAnna Rhinehart, Tony Roach, Lance Roberts, Blair Ross, Christine Cornish Smith, Paul Slade Smith, Samantha Sturm, Matt Wall, Michael Williams, Minami Yusui, and Lee Zarrett.
Theatre: Lincoln Center Theater-Vivian Beaumont Theatre, 150 West 65th Street between Broadway and Amsterdam
Tickets: Telecharge

Harry Hadden-Paton and Lauren Ambrose
Photo by Joan Marcus

Familiarity may not always breed contempt, but it generally does lead to an expectation of predictability. It's probably not a risky proposition to suggest that a great majority of those attending the revival of My Fair Lady at Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theatre will be very familiar with Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe's cherished musical, either from the original cast recording or from the later movie version. We've grown accustomed to the matchup between Julie Andrews as Eliza Doolittle and Rex Harrison as Henry Higgins, or the pairing of Audrey Hepburn and Harrison from the film. Could there be any surprises left to be culled from this old warhorse?

Turns out, there could be and there are, as director Bartlett Sher shows us with a production that both respects the iconic source and reshapes it into a paean to feminist awakening. This distinct interpretation may not be to everyone's liking, especially if you are predisposed to think of the show essentially as a romantic comedy. But Sher, who has established himself as the go-to director for reimagining landmark musicals for Lincoln Center (notably South Pacific and The King and I), has done a fine job of showcasing the familiar elements of My Fair Lady while harkening back to George Bernard Shaw's support of equal rights for women.

Mind you, Sher hasn't messed with the plot, which still relates the story of the chance meeting between Eliza Doolittle, a Cockney flower girl, and Henry Higgins, a self-styled expert in phonetics and dialects. She turns to him for speech lessons so that she can learn to "talk like a lady" and perhaps open her own flower shop, while Higgins is intrigued by the challenge. As for the music, even the staunchest devotees of the score ought to be pleased with the attention that has been lavished on every single number, all accompanied by a 29-piece orchestra performing Robert Russell Bennett and Phil Lang's musical arrangements and Trude Rittmann's dance arrangements from the original production.

Lauren Ambrose as Liza, while admittedly lacking Julie Andrews' crystalline soprano, does quite "loverly" with her songs. The best of these occur after she has dropped her studied Cockney accent and she can give full voice to the likes of the effervescent "I Could Have Danced All Night." Harry Hadden-Paton, rather akin to the vocally challenged Rex Harrison, is not the world's greatest crooner, but he does a fine job of talk-singing his way through "Why Can't The English" and his closing song of regret, "I've Grown Accustomed To Her Face." Finally, we've got Norbert Leo Butz on hand to provide every ounce of a raucous performance as Liza's father Alfred Doolittle, with rousing renditions of "With A Little Bit Of Luck" in Act I and, especially, "I'm Getting Married In The Morning" in Act II that is performed in all of its music hall glory. Hats off to the performers and to Christopher Gattelli's choreography, which, like the other design elements, serves this revival quite well.

Norbert Leo Butz and The Company
Photo by Joan Marcus

My Fair Lady is, of course, based on George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion (the production credits both the stage play and Gabriel Pascal's film version of that play). But Sher is less concerned with making direct connections with the specific sources than he is in honoring Shaw's overall egalitarian stance. Such an approach is potentially risky at a time when producers and directors (mostly men) are falling all over themselves to demonstrate they are "woke" with respect to the #MeToo movement and the general treatment of women in social and workplace situations. Like the character of Henry Higgins, played by Mr. Hadden-Paton with a presumptive air of masculine superiority, it's all too easy, regardless of intentions, to come off as patronizing.

Smartly, Sher establishes an overall and consistent pattern that has us follow Liza's evolving confidence in her own potential and self-sufficiency over the course of the evening. Ms. Ambrose and Mr. Hadden-Paton, close in age to one another, are well suited to their roles. It's a different take on things when the age difference disappears and the "verbal class distinction" that Higgins is so scornful of in the opening number, along with his general dismissiveness of women, are what capture our attention. His protestation that he would treat a duchess the same "as if she was a flower girl," meant as a demonstration of his even-handedness in all matters involving women, quite rightly falls flat. And Liza's words, "the difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves, but how she is treated," are all the more significant, especially when we come to understand she is referring to respect rather than chivalry.

Aligning with Shaw, Sher's guiding principle is to have us view the world from Liza's perspective. In the beginning, it may be true that all she wants is a "room somewhere," along with chocolates and someone "who takes good care of me." But the things she learns while studying with Higgins and living in his household change her in ways that go far beyond the pronunciation of her vowels. By the time of her triumphant appearance at the Embassy Ball, she has come to realize that this is where her own efforts have taken her.

Just take in the look on Ms. Ambrose's face and her body language in response to the asinine praise Higgins and his colleague Colonel Pickering (Allan Corduner) heap on one another in the song "You Did It" at the end of that jubilant night. Consider, too, the support she gets from Higgins' mother (the grand and glorious Dame Diana Rigg) who refers to her son and Pickering as a "pretty pair of babies playing with your live doll." Recall the parade of suffragettes who turn up in one street scene, and how Liza learns to gently disentangle herself from her father's bullying and conniving ways. She is nobody's fool. She has taken it all in, just as we have.

Ultimately, these incidents provide the momentum to carry us to a more ambiguous ending than we are used to seeing from previous productions, but one that is very much in keeping with all that has come before. (SPOILER ALERT: Liza breaks the fourth wall and walks off through the audience, not in anger and not like Nora in Ibsen's A Doll's House, but with a self-assured certitude; the ball is totally in her court now). You decide if there is a finality in this. I suspect that if Higgins manages to grow up, they may see each other again, but only as equals.

In addition to all of the ways in which Bartlett Sher has rethought the direction of the story of the flower girl and the professor, there is much to commend about the design elements. Catherine Zuber's costumes, especially those she has created for the perfectly conceived and executed scene at the Ascot racecourse, pay tribute to Cecil Beaton's designs from the original production while showing Ms. Zuber's uncanny ability to capture just the right spirit to show off the posh toffs in attendance. Michael Yeargan's set design is quite substantial, giving the appearance of solid granite buildings and columns, mahogany walls, steel fencing, and large arched glass windows; my one quibble is with the highly detailed depiction of the interior of Higgins' Wimpole Street home, which nearly takes on a life on its own as it appears and disappears into the rear of the Vivian Beaumont's cavernous stage, and spins like a top as it takes us from room to room. But what impressed me most was Marc Salzberg's sound design, which is subtle enough so that you can actually hear the performers' own voices. That surely is one tribute to the past that I would love to see revived on a more permanent basis.

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