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A CurtainUp Review
My Fair Lady
By Elyse Sommer
The reason that those finding it impossible to adapt Shaw's play into a musical (including the iconic team of Rodgers and Hammerstein), had nothing to do with the abusive aspects of Henry's transformation of Eliza from guttersnipe into lady. A major problem was that it didn't have a secondary plot to focus on romance or have comic counterpart to the main story musicals of the time called for. But Lerner and Loewe overcame that obstacles by turning that sub-plot role over to Eliza's father, and creating songs fitting the genre that librettist-lyricist Lynn Ahrens in an article in the always informative Lincoln Center Review, calls "stealth love songs"—songs in which a character doesn't so much give voice to being in love with another character, but sees him or her in a new light. The self-revealing yet emotionally in denial "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face." is of course one of My Fair Lady's most memorable examples of this genre.
Anyway, Eliza was never a doormat character, not in Shaw's Pygmalion, or the musical. She just had a larger hurdle to achieve enough independence to sum up her resentment at Higgins' macho ignorance of her feelings with her much quoted "The difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves, but how she's treated."
Mr. Sher could have gotten by without any attempt to give the revival more of a "now" feeling. Even past productions that ended in keeping with the once de rigueur implication of a romance between Eliza and the sexist Higgins, made it easy to picture Eliza making sure that Higgins would appreciate having a woman in his life more than he does in "I'm An Ordinary Man" — and that she herself would have few more requirements than the "room somewhere/Far away from the cold night air" she sings about in "Wouldn't It Be Loverly?"
Yet, despite Eliza having always been a smart and ambitious character (she seeks out Higgins to teach her a chance to improve her lot), bravo to Mr. Sher for giving us a chance to view My Fair Lady with a fresh perspective; and to do so without any drastic diddling with the text or lyrics. It's all accomplished via deft visual touches and the actors' interpretations.
Sher's most obvious and unmistakable update comes at the very end. Whether you like it or not, everything leading up to it is a wonderfully grand trip back to a time when Broadway musicals featured big orchestras, elegant scenery and costumes, and left you humming all those wonderful songs.
With Choreographer Christopher Gatelli, music director Ted Sperling and the design team from South Pacific & The King and I once again on board this My Fair Lady is a visual and aural feast. Michael Yeargan has outdone himself with a set design that's dominated by Higgins's two-story home which features his elegantly furnished, wood paneled study,and circular staircase and rotates around to other rooms. The Higgins home also slides forward and backward to move the action to the various other scenes including the various other scenes (the Covent Garden opening, Ascott Gavette, the Embassy Waltz as well as the front of the Higgins home for the one traditional love song "On the Street Where You Live" by the one traditional romantic character, the hopelessly smitten Freddy Eynsford-Hill.
Donald Holder's lighting casts the opening scene at Covent Gardens into an especially striking blue light, and a whole room full of closets is needed to hold Catherine Zuber's terrific costumes (smoking jackets, ragamuffin outfits, gowns galore for the ladies, smoking jackets for Higgins and Pickering). Zuber has wisely created her own look for the famous Ascot Scene.
While the way that Higgins home spins around slides forward and backward is a bit too busy and imposing it does supports Mr. Sher's directorial vision. For one thing, it underscore's Shaw's vision for using Pygmalion to incorporate the theme of class differences into the Higgins-Eliza story. And, this more stately home's requirement for servants other than the housekeeper Mrs. Pearce, also enables choreographer Gatelli to have those servants erupt into lively ensemble numbers.
While the 1964 movie version of My Fair Lady starred a non-singing actress, Audrey Hepburn, her singing was dubbed by Marni Nixon. But Lauren Ambrose, who's best known for her non-singing roles on stage in Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet and in TV's SiX Feet Under proves to be an apt casting choice. She not only captures Eliza's need to find the best way to make the most of her new status, but turns out to have a lovely soprano. Harry Hadden-Paton, also a non-singing actor, may not have quite the charismatic sizzle of Rex Harrison, but he's a fine match for Ambrose's Eliza and sings well enough not to speak the lyrics as Harrison did.
Norbert Leo Butz, who we're more used to seeing in starring role, adds show-stopping momentum to the role of Albert Doolittle. His second act's "Get Me in the Church In Time" is one of the show's most spectacular full scale song and dance numbers. While Mr. Gatelli's can-can dancers are fun, I couldn't find a good reason for their turning out to be cross-dressers.
Allan Corduner is an engaging Colonel Pickering, as is Linda Mugleston as Mrs. Pearce. While I think if Shaw were alive to write his epilogue for Pygmalion, he would have Eliza marry neither Higgins or Freddy Eynsford-Hill, but fulfill her flower shop ambitions as an independent entrepreneur. That said, Jordan Donica is a charming nerd and brings a fine voice to his rendition of "On the Street Where You Live." Bringing Diana Rigg back to Broadway as Henry's mother Mrs. Higgins adds a delightful bit of star as well as nostalgic casting since she once played Eliza.
Ultimately you can't beat this sumptuous revival for a truly loverly time. While Shaw's Pygmalion has been overshadowed by the musical, it did have a delightful recent production of Pygmalion. While it's now closed, the original movie with Wendy Hiller and Leslie Howard is still available on You Tube. As for this new My Fair Lady, rest assured that you'll have a "loverly" time.
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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
Choreography by Christopher Gattelli
Princials of 37-membercast: Lauren Ambrose (Eliza Doolittle), Harry Hadden-Paton (Henry Higgins), Norbert Leo Butz (Alfred Doolittle), Diana Rigg (Mrs. Higgins), Allan Corduner (Colonel Pickering),, Linda Mugleston (Mrs. Pearce), Manu Narayan (Zoltan Karpathy).
Sets by Michael Yeargan
Costumes by Catherine Zuber
Lighting by Donald Holder
Sound by Marc Salzberg
Director of 29-piece orchestra, Ted Sperling
Original musical arrangements by Robert Russell Bennett and Phil Lang, and dance arrangements by Trude Rittmann
Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theater 150 West 65th Street
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 4/22 press matinee
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