Nunn’s ‘Fair Lady’ Is Imbued With Class
By Peter Marks, Washington Post
Trevor Nunn’s frisky revival of “My Fair Lady” provides fresh evidence of how perfectly Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe wrapped a passel of melodies around the imagination of George Bernard Shaw.
Originally staged in 2001 at the Royal National Theatre in London, Nunn’s charming production has been reincarnated at last for a U.S. tour. It arrives at the Kennedy Center Opera House bearing the earmarks of first-rate engineering, from Anthony Ward’s luxe sets and costumes to, especially, the joyful ingenuity of Matthew Bourne’s gamboling choreography.
In place of the revival’s highly praised original stars, Jonathan Pryce and Martine McCutcheon, Christopher Cazenove and Lisa O’Hare have been cast as the eternal antagonists in this “Pygmalion” set to music: Professor Henry Higgins, the brutish Edwardian master of elocution, and Eliza Doolittle, the Cockney gamine whom, on a bet, Higgins seeks to pass off as a duchess.
The polished Cazenove and O’Hare serve rather than dominate this version, which is to say that while neither brings out any particularly vivid new facet of the characters, both offer solidly entertaining portrayals. On this occasion, the vastness of the space may be muting the actors’ impact.
The Opera House is not ideal for a musical that turns on shadings of character; from where I sat, one could barely make out the performers’ facial expressions. (For those splurging on tickets in the orchestra, I suggest trying to secure seats in Row P or closer -- or else dust off those opera glasses.)
You will want to catch as much of the nuance as you possibly can, because director Nunn and choreographer Bourne have handled “My Fair Lady” with all the special care and refinement it deserves. Their tweaks principally have to do with making sure the musical moves. Songs such as “With a Little Bit of Luck” and “Get Me to the Church on Time” -- both presided over by Tim Jerome’s marvelous Alfred P. Doolittle -- operate here as propulsive, pulse-quickening production numbers. The staging, too, reinforces the ability of Lerner and Loewe’s timeless songs not only to augment the personalities of these eccentric characters, but also to act as narrative links between scenes.
Even a number as traditionally static as “Show Me” -- Eliza’s frustrated cry over the genteel affectations of ardent, blue-blooded Freddy Eynsford-Hill (Justin Bohon) -- gets a more active makeover. For the song, Bourne and Nunn now thrust Eliza into the city, singing her complaint while riding on the London Underground and while engulfed in a parade of suffragists.
These touches offer us, too, a keener sense of the London intellectual landscape that Shaw’s plays helped to shape. While some recent versions -- such as Eric Schaeffer’s engaging revival at Signature Theatre in 2006 -- sought to pare down the musical’s theatricality and draw more intimate psychological portraits of the main combatants, Nunn wants us to have a glimpse of the broader social framework. Feminism and class consciousness were some of the political notions that Shaw was elucidating in “Pygmalion” -- themes Nunn underlines as being fundamental to “My Fair Lady,” too.
None of this is introduced artificially. Nunn’s production retains all of the musical’s piquant sophistication, its subliminal hints of offbeat romance. Rarely has “Ascot Gavotte,” Lerner and Loewe’s lampoon of the emotional constipation of the rich, been staged as successfully. In a delicate nod to Cecil Beaton’s black-and-white “look” (immortalized in the 1964 movie), costume designer Ward dresses his ensemble in black, with deft daubs of purple. The hat for Eliza in this sequence is a one-act comedy all by itself.
Bourne’s choreography enhances the satire. In the dances for the preening dandies at the races, he incorporates some equine gestures -- totally apropos for these thoroughbreds under glass. He plays expertly with stillness as well, which makes the song’s point all the funnier.
Cazenove, whom some may remember as the dashing Charles Haslemere in the ‘70s “Masterpiece Theatre” TV series “The Duchess of Duke Street,” is a fine keeper of the flame Rex Harrison ignited. In the tradition of Harrison, he speak-sings the musical’s elegant odes to chauvinism, “I’m an Ordinary Man” and “A Hymn to Him” -- and does it well. His Higgins is, as the role calls for, advanced in everything except emotional maturity, a failing played out most satisfyingly in the confrontation scene in the home of his mother (portrayed by the vibrant Sally Ann Howes).
While the new orchestrations by William David Brohn leave you hungry for the more intense aural cascades of the original, nothing is wanting in the contributions of Jerome, the evening’s most galvanizing performer. As the impishly craven Alfie, Jerome fully embodies the character’s paradoxes, his selfishness and his expansiveness, his hard-knock wisdom and his music hall joie de vivre.
O’Hare, meanwhile, is Cazenove’s comically agile partner, with a pretty if not voluptuous sound. (In more confined quarters, her “I Could Have Danced All Night” would doubtless be a warmer statement.) She pulls off Eliza’s transformation with a clear grasp of the character’s strength.
And she looks angelic in the glittery gown Ward designed for her ballroom scene. Though the musical ends with a rightful dose of Shavian ambiguity, an audience is more than convinced that this Higgins and Eliza have sealed a destiny together.
My Fair Lady, book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner, music by Frederick Loewe. Directed by Trevor Nunn. Choreography, Matthew Bourne; music director, James Lowe; lighting, David Hersey; associate director, Shaun Kerrison; sound, Paul Groothuis. With Barbara Marineau. About 2 hours 50 minutes. Through Jan. 20 at the Kennedy Center Opera House. Call 202-467-4600 or visit http://www.kennedy-center.org.