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My Fair Lady
Directed by Bartlett Sher
Lincoln Center Theater at the Vivian Beaumont
150 West 65 Street
Opened April 19, 2018
Reviewed by Paulanne Simmons May 3, 2018
From Catherine Zuber’s elegant costumes and Michael Yeargan’s sumptuous set, to the delightful interpretation of Lerner and Loewe’s magnificent score brought to life by Ted Sperling’s musical director, Robert Russell Bennett and Phil Lang’s arrangements, and Marc Salzbeg’s sound design, “My Fair Lady” is a treat for the eyes and ears.
This Lincoln Center revival, directed by Bartlett Sher, who also helmed the revivals of “The King and I” and “South Pacific,” features Lauren Ambrose as the flower girl turned into the “fair lady,” and Harry Hadden-Paton making his New York theater debut as Henry Higgins, the supercilious phonetics professor who accomplishes the feat. As the show has had numerous revivals on and off-Broadway since its West End opening in 1958, the two leads have big shoes to fill. The biggest, of course, being those worn by the originators of the roles, Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews.
The good news is that Ambrose and Hadden-Paton acquit themselves wonderfully. Ambrose is fresh, charming and appropriately defiant. She easily handles such iconic numbers as “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly” and “I Could Have Danced All Night.” Hadden-Paton not only has a better voice than Harrison, he also gives the pompous professor a softer edge, especially in the end when “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” signals his change of heart.
Norbert Leo Butz as Eliza’s father, the drunken dustman, Alfred P. Doolittle, has the most fun in the play, because he gets to sing those comic masterpieces, “With a Little Bit of Luck” and “Get Me to the Church on Time.” And Jordan Donica, who plays the smitten aristocrat, Freddy Eynsford, is formidable in the sole task the play requires him to accomplish, which is to sing one of the best love songs ever written, “On the Street Where You Live.”
There are so many high points in this production, it’s difficult to single out only a few. Suffice it to say, Eliza’s first tryout at the races with the company singing “Ascot Gavotte” is a gem (Zuber’s gorgeous hats and dresses are enough to make one swoon). And “The Rain in Spain,” Eliza’s triumph over the English language, assisted by Higgins and Colonel Pickering (Allan Corduner), is a comic tour-de-force.
There’s only one problem with this production; Sher’s misguided attempt at political correctness, which led him to tweak the original ending. This may make a few reviewers feel a little more comfortable with the musical. It might even please Shaw, whose ending in the source material “Pygmalion” is more in line with Sher’s revision. But this 21st century conclusion has little to do with the 20th century musical.
As the saying goes: If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.
“My Fair Lady” goes back to Shaw’s socialist feminist original
Lauren Ambrose as Eliza. Photo by Joan Marcus.
“My Fair Lady.”
Book and Lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner based on George Bernard Shaw’s play, Pygmalion; Music by Frederick Loewe.
Directed by Bartlett Sher; Choreography by Christopher Gattelli.
Opened April 19, 2018; closes Jan 6, 2018.
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar May 3,2018.
Running time 2:55
More than 60 years after its charm overwhelmed the American stage, Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s“ My Fair Lady,” with revivals through the years, is back, and this time there’s a feminist kick. And some class solidarity. They are changes from America’s reactionary 1950s when it premiered. Credit director Bartlett Sher.
The street flower seller Eliza (Lauren Ambrose) is a sweetheart, and you get the sense of a supportive society among the sweepers and other night workers at Covent Garden.
Henry Higgins (Harry Hadden-Paton) has taken her up (in exchange for decent living conditions) to win a bet with his friend that he can teach her enough elocution to let her pass as a “lady.” Not so much a “gentleman,” which might require more than elocution, he calls her “low.” He is of course a class snob and also a bully, which goes with the territory.
He is fine when he is in charge, tellling the street girl how to pronounce her vowels.
Harry Hadden-Paton as Henry Higgins and Lauren Ambrose as Eliza. Photo by Joan Marcus.
When he sings angrily, “Let a woman in your life,” director Sher has a “Votes for Women” march parade through, with the protesters in the iconic white dress of 100 years ago.
So, this play is very much about class and gender, which is what the socialist George Bernard Shaw, who wrote “Pygmalion,” meant.
More subtle is the treatment of Alfie, Alfred Doolittle (a superb Norbert Leo Butz), Eliza’s hard-drinking father who hangs out at the Old Bell Tavern. He rails against middle class morality which tags him as one of the undeserving poor. His jaunty “A little bit of luck” number hopes that will last.
Note that when Alfie doesn’t work, he’s a bum. When Freddie Eynsford-Hill (Jordan Donica), the rich guy, doesn’t work, he’s still a classy guy. Though Eliza acknowledges that when they marry, she’ll have to support him.
Lauren Ambrose as Eliza, at the Ascot Races, and the company. Photo by Joan Marcus.
The rich side of town is exaggerated, from the dark wood walls of Higgins’ townhouse, full of servants, to the elegant chapeaux and top hats of the Ascot coterie.
I thought, “Eliza has learned diction, but what does she say? She has no education. Then I realized that neither do the others, it’s all surface and style.
When she revisits Covent Garden as a “lady,” and her old buddies hardly know her, you realize this is about the fact that people are defined by money and the class system.
Not that all the rich are as nasty as Higgins. His associate Col. Pickering (Allan Corduner) is amiable and courteous. His mother (Diana Rigg) is sensitive. And even Freddy, who does a charming “On The Street Where You Live” in fine baritone, shows human feeling.
Harry Hadden-Paton as Henry Higgins, Lauren Ambrose as Eliza, and Allan Corduner as Col Pickering. Photo by Joan Marcus.
I loved the impressionist colors in Michael Yeargan’s terrific sets, Sher’s direction as Eliza proclaims “Just You Wait, Henry Higgins,” walking in the revolving set through the many rooms of the house — to subtly point out there are so many — and the joyous “Rain in Spain” dance. Christopher Gattelli’s choreography and Catherine Zuber’s costumes are absobloominloverly.
Ambrose has a round sweet elegant soprano. But there’s also substance in her aggressive “Show Me.”
Seems to run in the family, as her father Alfie, more human than any of them, does a show-stopping jaunty “I’m Getting Married in the Morning,” his final acceptance of middle class morality, which seems to be defined, as socialist Shaw subtly notes, by getting a marriage license.
Norbert Leo Butz as Alfred Doolittle and the company, photo Joan Marcus,
Of course, the best is at the end when Higgins demands of Eliza as servant, “where are my slippers,” and she ditches him. I loved every moment of her racing off the stage and up the orchestra stairs to freedom. Shaw would have approved! In fact, his original ending was Eliza leaving Higgins after a quarrel. But Lerner and Lowe in the imprisoned housewives 50s chose “the sweet woman gives into dominant male.” Ugh! Thank you, Bartlett Sher, for going back to Shaw’s feminist original!
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