‘MY FAIR LADY’ | Classic tale revels in instant celebrity of an earlier age
By Misha Davenport, Chicago Sun-Times
The 21st century may be all about “American Idol,” but the 20th century had its own story of instant celebrity.
The Tony award-winning show “My Fair Lady,” about an arrogant professor of phonetics who bets that he can transform a Cockney flower girl into a proper English-speaking lady, opens Tuesday at the Cadillac Palace Theatre.
“When I revived it in 2002, it was the first show to tap into our modern fascination with instant celebrity,” says producer Cameron Mackintosh.
“This is a story of a small-town girl who has a big dream, goes out, finds it, fights for it and achieves it,” adds Lisa O’Hare, who steps into the role made famous in the original 1956 Broadway production by Julie Andrews, and later by Audrey Hepburn in the Oscar-winning film. “Though it is set in London, it really is the American dream,” O’Hare says.
Like her character Eliza Doolittle (or Andrews, for that matter), the musical is America’s introduction to her, though O’Hare, 24, is anything but an overnight sensation. She made her West End debut as an understudy for the role of Hope Harcourt in a 2002 revival of “Anything Goes,” has played the title role “Mary Poppins” in London and even appeared as Eliza in a critically acclaimed national tour of the show in the United Kingdom, but her talent will be new to most Chicagoans.
Sally Ann Howes, who took over for Andrews in the original Broadway production and played Mrs. Higgins in the current tour before Marni Nixon joined the cast in Chicago, recently told the Washington Post that she feels O’Hare is on the verge of becoming a superstar.
Those sentiments were echoed by O’Hare’s co-star Christopher Cazenove (best known to American audiences as Ben Carrington on “Dynasty”).
“Lisa is an immensely talented girl,” Cazenove says. “I would never dream of giving her notes or direction like my character Henry Higgins does to Eliza, and she is so talented, I would never need to.”
Without question, O’Hare’s star is rising.
“Though she is from an ordinary family, like Eliza, there is something classy about her,” Mackintosh says. “She was born to play this role.”
O’Hare’s own humbler beginnings seem to play well into the “rags to riches” element required of most instant celebrities.
“I’m from a working-class family in England. My family isn’t as poor as the Doolittles, but they certainly weren’t posh, either,” O’Hare says.
She also sees some of Eliza’s independence in herself.
“I left home at 11 to go to boarding school,” she adds, “Like Eliza the flower seller, I know how to fight and stick up for myself and I pull from all these things when I walk onstage as her.”
When asked if there was any reluctance to step into such an iconic role, O’Hare, says it never had a bearing on her decision. Turning it down was never an option.
“This is one of the best roles for a woman in theater,” O’Hare says. “I may never get the chance to play it again.”
Cazenove did have his own reservations.
“This show was written for Rex Harrison,” he says. “When you get up in front of an audience, most know the show and you have a lot to prove so they don’t leave feeling disappointed. I had huge apprehension about taking on such an [iconic] part.”
Mackintosh insists the show is more than just a remounting of a classic. This is the second time he has staged the show (his first production was in 1979). The North American tour still bears some of the changes made in 1979 (notably the decision to move the final scene of act one -- in which Eliza’s descends down a grand staircase and makes her societal debut at a ball -- to the start of act two). Mackintosh and director Trevor Nunn, also have altered some of the original scenes to make them resonate more with a contemporary audience.
“[‘Pygmalion’ author George Bernard] Shaw was an astute writer of what was going on around him at the time,” Mackintosh says. “To understand the stakes, you really need to see more of the world that Eliza rejects, and we’ve done that by opening up several of the scenes and giving more detail.”
Cazenove says audiences are in for a treat.
“The great thing about working with Cameron is he doesn’t cut any corners,” he says. “The show looks gorgeous, has a fabulous cast and there’s not a bum song in the piece. It’s wonderfully satisfying.”
‘MY FAIR LADY’
Tuesday through Feb. 3
Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph