Theater review by Adam Feldman
[Note: Laura Benanti now plays Eliza Doolittle, and Harry Hadden-Paton and Allan Corduner remain in their original roles. They are joined by Rosemary Harris as Mrs. Higgins, Alexander Gemignani as Alfred Doolittle and Christian Dante White as Freddy.]
We’ve grown accustomed to the grace of Bartlett Sher’s revivals of American stage classics, but that doesn’t mean we should take them for granted. Working in blessed harmony with his trusty creative team—including set designer Michael Yeargan and costumer Catherine Zuber—Sher is not an iconoclast or radical re-sculptor; instead, he acts as a restorer, leaving the shows on their pedestals but stripping off years of obscuration to reveal layers the works have possessed all along. So it is with the splendid new Lincoln Center Theater revival of My Fair Lady.
Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s sparkling 1956 musical doesn’t need much retooling. Its delightful songs—including “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?,” “I Could Have Danced All Night” and “The Rain in Spain”—spring like fresh water from the show’s source, George Bernard Shaw’s 1913 parable Pygmalion. In Edwardian London, a haughty and misogynist professor of phonetics, Henry Higgins (Harry Hadden-Paton), makes a bet with his friend Pickering (Allan Corduner) that he can take lowborn flower girl Eliza Doolittle (Lauren Ambrose) and give her the manners and elocution of a poised aristocrat. Or as he says, with nasty Shavian snap: “I’ll make a duchess of this draggle-tailed guttersnipe!”
In the original Broadway production of My Fair Lady, Henry was played by an imperious headliner, Rex Harrison, and Eliza by the then-unknown Julie Andrews. In this one, the star-power dynamics have shifted. The luminous Ambrose, already known from Six Feet Under and elsewhere—though even fans may be surprised at the high quality of her soprano singing—is very much the center of Sher’s production. Charmingly and sensitively, she builds a portrait of a young woman finding her footing, sometimes literally, in worlds she never expected for herself. Eliza’s intelligence is never in question, and her inner reserve of strength renders Henry’s condescension moot.
Even as Henry gives Eliza the dubious gift of class mobility, transforming her Cockney squawk into a cultivated coo, he treats her horridly; her lessons are the focus of the plot, but the emotional learning curve is his. Hadden-Paton is younger than Harrison was in 1956 (in fact, he is younger than Ambrose), and his Henry has the breezy callowness of a privileged fellow who knows a great deal but thinks very little. His pedantry is essentially childish. As his mother—a stiff pillow of a woman played, in a stroke of luxury casting, by the peerless Dame Diana Rigg—puts it: “What a pretty pair of babies you are, playing with your live doll.”
The musical pulls out all the stops for a raucous production number, “Get Me to the Church on Time,” which marks the begrudging transformation of Eliza’s father (Norbert Leo Butz, with his usual impatience de vivre) from ne’er-do-well to well-to-do. But its default mode is elegance. Sher is acutely alert to the shifts of balance within both My Fair Lady itself and the way it plays to contemporary audiences, and nowhere is that clearer than in his clever solution to the show’s notoriously slippery ending. This revival has devised a way to have its scone and eat it too.
Vivian Beaumont Theater (Broadway). Book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner. Music by Frederick Loewe. Directed Bartlett Sher. With Lauren Ambrose, Harry Hadden-Paton, Norbert Leo Butz, Diana Rigg. Running time: 2hrs 55mins. One intermission.