She has won acclaim as Mary Poppins. Now she's tackling another icon, Eliza Doolittle.
By Linda Matchan, Boston Globe Staff
British stage actress Lisa O'Hare was only 11 when she left her home in the small town of Lancashire.
She was a boarding student at the elite Royal Ballet School near London, far from her family, and lonely. The teachers were strict, the students ambitious, and she had to fend for herself early on. After five years, she left to study theater, and since then she's married her talents in dance shows and musicals in England, most recently starring in the title role of "Mary Poppins" in London.
Yet O'Hare never would have guessed that so many years after leaving Lancashire, she would draw on some of her darker boarding-school experiences to play one of the greatest roles in the history of musical theater, the cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle in "My Fair Lady."
O'Hare, now 24, stars in the national touring production of the Lerner and Loewe musical, which makes its Boston debut Tuesday at the Opera House. The show, produced by Cameron Mackintosh and the National Theatre of Great Britain, costars Christopher Cazenove, known to US audiences as Ben Carrington on "Dynasty," as Eliza's arrogant elocution master, Henry Higgins. Theater and film star Marni Nixon, eternally linked to this musical since hers was the singing voice of Eliza in the 1964 Audrey Hepburn film, plays Mrs. Higgins.
"In many ways, I identify with Eliza," O'Hare said in a recent telephone interview from Chicago, where the show was playing. "By no means did I ever go through that level of poverty, but I've been through that kind of struggle as a child leaving home and having to be an adult as a very young person. Early in the play, [Eliza] is out on the street working at a very young age, and that is something I can pull on. And I also pull on my ballet background, such as when she's asked to stand properly. This is something I've experienced: It's drummed into you at ballet school, when you're around certain ballet mistresses or patrons."
Adapted from George Bernard Shaw's classic "Pygmalion," "My Fair Lady" is the story of Higgins's self-serving efforts to turn a lowly cockney girl into a woman who could pass for a duchess. With its timeless themes of class struggle, romance, and betrayal, the original production opened on Broadway in 1956 and was the longest-running musical of its day.
"My goodness, it's probably the greatest score ever written," said associate director Shaun Kerrison by phone from London. "To hear 'I Could Have Danced All Night,' 'On the Street Where You Live,' 'Get Me to the Church on Time,' 'Wouldn't It Be Loverly?' one after another! "The challenge is to make the audience hear them anew, and you only do this by treating it as honestly as we can, as dramatically as we can."
Based on a UK production, this touring show brings together the original artistic team, with direction by Trevor Nunn and choreography and musical staging by Matthew Bourne. It was restaged by choreographer Fergus Logan and Kerrison, who savored the challenge because "the material is so rich," he said.
"One thing we have tried to do is perhaps put it more firmly within its time," said Kerrison. Eliza's emergence as a modern woman takes place alongside the rise of the suffragette movement: She joins a suffragette rally to give a feisty performance of 'Show Me,' her lament of frustrated love. "The mantra of the suffragettes was 'Deeds, not words,' and that is the whole point of the song - show me, don't talk at me, give me action, not theory," Kerrison said.
The setting was also moved back for the recent UK production from 1912 to 1910, the year King Edward Vll died, to convey the sense of a declining empire and a people in mourning. So the Ascot racecourse scene pays homage to the late king. "Based on research, and we looked into it very carefully, women paraded their finery [at Ascot], but everyone was all in black that year," he said. "You have to be very inventive to stand out in black hats and black wigs."
Ultimately, Kerrison attributes much of the show's authenticity and honesty to O'Hare's performance.
"Lisa brings delicacy and fire, if you can put these two words together," he said. "It's wonderful to have such a young woman play this role. The character is often played by an older actress, as it's [typically] only older ones who can handle the dialects and the dramatic singing. But this role needs somebody who is at the beginning of her journey, because that is what Eliza is. She's on the cusp of becoming someone revolutionary, a woman in a man's world and a working-class woman in a world of privilege who demands to be taken seriously. You need someone young and fresh and daring to be able to pull that off. An older woman can play it, but Lisa is it."
O'Hare, who earned rave reviews in England as Mary Poppins, says she found switching to the role of Eliza to be challenging, as it's "the complete opposite" of Mary Poppins. (She mastered Eliza's rough East End cockney accent by watching a popular BBC soap opera called "EastEnders.")
"Eliza is very, very real and raw and crazy emotional, and Mary Poppins is very contained and pert and supernatural," O'Hare said. "They are both very, very extreme. But they're both fantastic roles to play, and dream roles for me."
She watched the film version of "My Fair Lady" as a girl and recalls being smitten with it from the start.
"I loved the film, and [the story] is definitely still relevant," said O'Hare. "We are still completely obsessed with the social-experiment thing, even with 'American Idol.' That may sound strange to say, but it's the same aspect of things - taking someone from a deprived background and putting them in a different social setting. Audiences love to see how they thrive in different social circles. And people love to see a small-town girl succeeding. It's like the American dream, and it's why the show does so brilliantly in America."