SIMPLY LOVERLY: ‘My Fair Lady’ revival tops all expectations
By IRIS FANGER
For The Patriot Ledger
If ever there were a reason to brave the elements, it’s the splendid revival of ‘‘My Fair Lady,’’ now at The Opera House in Boston. The Brits who mounted this touring production know how to do George Bernard Shaw proud.
His play, ‘‘Pygmalion,’’ furnished the dialogue and plot for the Alan Jay Lerner/Frederic Loewe musical, which opened on Broadway in 1956 and ran for years in New York and London.
Given the near-perfect score with its unforgettable songs, ‘‘I Could Have Danced All Night’’ and ‘‘The Rain in Spain’’ among them, and characters of such individuality and life force, Eliza Doolittle, the flower girl who turns into a princess of breeding; the feisty voice coach with an ear for language but a tone-deaf heart, Professor Higgins; and Eliza’s scamp of a father, Alfred P. Doolittle, ‘‘one of the undeserving poor,’’ as he calls himself; there’s little that can ruin this outing.
However, director Trevor Nunn tops all expectations by adding a sensitive rethinking of the relationships, making the characters even more sympathetic. Choreographer Matthew Bourne has re-imagined the big numbers, especially the Ascot Race Track scene in which he gives the snobbish gentlemen the prancing movements of the horses they are watching on the field, and the bar room scene of ‘‘With a Little Bit of Luck,’’ performed stomp-like with trash-can covers as tap shoes.
The story line concerns the speech teacher, Professor Higgins, and his bachelor sidekick, Colonel Pickering, who pluck Eliza off a corner at Covent Garden where she is selling flowers. She speaks in shrill cockney accent, nearly unintelligible to any member of polite society. The men make a bet that if they teach her to speak correct English - the language of Shakespeare, they tell her - they can pass her off in six months as a duchess. They win their bet and Eliza wins respectability, but at a price. If all of the above sounds like an unlikely three hours in the theater, well, you have neither heard the witty persuasiveness of Shaw’s arguments nor met the characters who come to life on stage.
Shaw decreed that Eliza and Higgins not marry and fall in love, but why believe him, given the inconclusive ending. Lisa O’Hare as the gutter-snipe, singing in a clear, bell-like soprano and moving through the stage space like a ballerina (she’s Royal Ballet School trained), blessed by wide eyes that telegraph her feelings, is a marvelous Eliza, and with the properly clueless pomposity of Christopher Cazanove as Higgins and Walter Charles as Pickering, you’ll wish for a conventional happy-Cinderella ending. However, you’ll be forgiven if you heave a sigh for the sexiness of Rex Harrison, who created the role of Higgins in the stage premiere of ‘‘My Fair Lady’’ (and the film), missing here. Tim Jerome makes a deliciously amoral Alfred P. Doolittle, licking his chops at his new-found luck and clicking his heels in the dances. The casting of Marni Nixon, who dubbed the singing for Audrey Hepburn as Eliza in the film, is a welcome ‘‘in-joke’’ as the starchy Mrs. Higgins, the professor’s mother.
Uber-producer Cameron Mackintosh (think ‘‘The Phantom of the Opera’’ ‘‘Cats and ‘‘Les Miserables’’) has not stinted on quality, either in the excellent cast, the fine arrangements for the live orchestra, or the lavish sets and costumes, designed by Anthony Ward. If you’ve seen ‘‘My Fair Lady,’’ see it again; and if you have children to introduce to the pleasures of live theater at its best, make it this one.
‘‘My Fair Lady’’ - at The Opera House, Boston, through February 17.Tickets $30.-$91. Call Ticketmaster at 617-931-2787 or broadwayacrossamerica.com