A Loverly Revival of My Fair Lady

The cast at curtain calls
About three weeks ago I saw the Lincoln Center Theater's revival of Lerner and Loewe's My Fair Lady. Back then it was in the first week of previews. I saw a lot of promise and potential but it was obvious that the production was still in an embryonic stage. Actors were going up on lines, timing was off, and the pacing was slow and ponderous. The performance read more like a serious play than a classic musical comedy.

Last night I went back. The show is now "frozen" -- the audience last night was made of LCT's patrons. Director Bart Sher was still nervously watching from his seat in the back of the theater and busy peppering people for feedback during intermission and after the show. And while there are still a few weak spots in the production, overall the show is ready to go. The timing is snappy, the jokes are landing, the music is beautiful, and everyone just looked ready for prime time. This is a loverly revival and I expect it will get several Tony nom's and win the Tony for Best Revival.

The Rain in Spain, photo @ Joan Marcus
Bart Sher's production is essentially a conservative, loving tribute to one of musical theater's crowning glories. The Vivian Beaumont Theatre is one of the best-- there's really not a bad seat in the house and there's a sizable pit that allowed for a large orchestra. They played Frederick Loewe's classic score beautifully. Much of the stage business seems based on the original production by Moss Hart and the movie adaptation. Sher didn't reinvent the wheel. The sets by Michael Yeargan are mostly minimalist flats except for the main set which is Higgins' study. That is a big, tall, ornate set that last night malfunctioned and held up the show for a good 10-15 minutes. The costumes by Catherine Zuber were nice if were a bit too fussy for my taste. I longed for Cecil Beaton's famously elegant designs.

Ambrose, photo @ Joan Marcus
Lauren Ambrose (Eliza) has improved in leaps and bounds within weeks. A few weeks ago she was so focused on the singing that her acting was often tentative. Well last night she was funny. Her exaggerated way of pronouncing the "H's" in the Ascot scene and her breathless retelling of her aunt's demise had the audience guffawing. She showed humor, spunk, charm, and strength of character. Ambrose also did something that Audrey Hepburn could not do in the film, and that was to convey Eliza's awkwardness and discomfort as a "duchess at the Embassy Ball." Hepburn disappeared completely into her international accent and designer clothes. Ambrose made it clear that she was still an outsider. And how Ambrose's voice? It's basically a lovely soprano, but is an upside down triangle -- she sang the high notes "I Could Have Danced All Night" with no problems, but songs requiring a medium tessitura sounded weak and breathy. During those moments she has rather weird posture -- hunched over shoulders, bent knees. For songs like "Show Me" the posture went against the confidence Eliza is supposed to project. But overall she gives a very winning portrayal.

Harry Hadden-Patton, photo @ Joan Marcus
Sher hit a jackpot when he cast Harry Hadden-Patton as Henry Higgins. Higgins is a tricky character to play -- his patter-like song-speech was something devised by Frederick Loewe, Alan Jay Lerner and Moss Hart for Rex Harrison. Hadden-Patton kept the quick patter but sang a lot more than Harrison. Hadden-Patton's Higgins is not so much an ill-tempered bully but rather an endearing eccentric. If we were to use modern lingo we might say that his single-minded obsession and disregard for others puts him on the spectrum. He's also funny, good-looking and charismatic, and those qualities offset some of the misogyny and rudeness of Higgins. He got huge laughs for moments both big (his delightfully oblivious songs like "I'm an Ordinary Man" and "Why Can't a Woman") and small (every time he mentioned his love of shopping the audience snickered). His natural British accent was a great goal-post as I noticed inconsistencies in the accents of Ambrose, Norbert Leo Butz, and Jordan Donica. Hadden-Patton also showed much more depth of feeling during "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face" than Harrison did in the film. His voice cracked with emotion. The audience likes him even when he refers to Eliza as "this squashed cabbage leaf."

Get Me to the Church, photo @ Joan Marcus
Norbert Leo Butz as Doolittle also made major improvements. Doolittle when done right is one of the funniest characters in musical theater. But Butz in early previews let one joke after another get away with his mumbly diction and surprisingly dour disposition. All of this is gone. He was projecting his lines much better, and with better timing so more laughs came. He also apparently took some dancing lessons because he danced a lot more in "Get Me to the Church." I'm still super-attached to Stanley Holloway's incredible portrayal but Butz was an okay if not spectacular Doolittle.

Jordan Donica, photo @ Joan Marcus
The weaker link was Jordan Donica's Freddy. Donica's voice is fine, and he looks cute. His portrayal however is stiff as a board and rather cold. His timing is also off -- during the Ascot scene he didn't get the cue to "snigger" at Eliza's "small talk" at the right time. Freddy is supposed to be a big sap, but Donica's mannerisms are more like Prince Philip than a guy who writes "sheets and sheets" of love poems. "On the Street Where You Live" was well-sung but had no feeling, no passion. He also had no chemistry with Ambrose's Eliza. You couldn't imagine these two dating, much less marrying. I was let down by Diana Rigg's Mrs. Higgins. I know it's a brief part but honestly I expected more. She's DIANA RIGG. But what we got was a formulaic, unremarkable portrayal. Allan Corduner was a bland Pickering (but is this character ever interesting?) while Linda Mugleston sneakily stole some scenes as the officious Mrs. Pearce.

The timing for this revival was just right. Last year all the buzz was about Hello Dolly! I saw Hello Dolly! with both Bette Midler and Donna Murphy. I took my mom to see Hello Dolly! I enjoyed it immensely. However Hello Dolly! is pure fluff/diva material. Its impact disappears as quickly as Dolly's meal at the courthouse. My Fair Lady as well as the uneven but compelling revival of Carousel shows that classic musicals were not just corny fluff. They are complicated, thorny stories with beautiful music that demands across-the-board excellence from its performers.


Higgins and Eliza, photo @ Joan Marcus
The only major thing Bart Sher has changed about My Fair Lady is the ending. The ending to G.B. Shaw's Pygmalion was always a point of contention -- performers started tinkering with it so much so that Shaw felt it necessary to write a long epilogue explaining that Eliza marries Freddy and remains frenemies with Higgins. You can read it here. The wonderful 1938 movie however changed that ending to a cautiously optimistic future for Eliza and Higgins. It was this ending that Alan Jay Lerner used for My Fair Lady.

Both endings are problematic. Eliza is too intelligent to be truly happy with the sweet but dim Freddy, and Shaw's insistence on marrying Eliza off to Freddy is a reflection on his cynicism. On the other hand the bond between Eliza and Higgins is never portrayed as sexual or romantic, and so a forced reunion at the end seems, well, forced. I mean what would they really do together at Wimpole Street? Talk about grammar and shop for clothes? Sher's ending doesn't change any of the lines between Eliza and Higgins. She still visits him and watches him sadly listening to her voice on the phonograph. She turns the phonograph off and says "I washed my face and hands before I come, I did." He still says "Where the devil are my slippers?" But instead of the curtain falling at that moment, Sher gives us a bittersweet farewell between the two protagonists. Eliza holds his hand, touches his cheek, and then walks offstage, presumably to begin a new life.

In theory this should work beautifully. There's enough tenderness in the scene to make us understand Eliza and Higgins' bond, but also realism -- if you just judged the musical's book there's no indication that Eliza could ever be happy with Higgins. However, in this production, the chemistry between Ambrose and Hadden-Patton is so strong that this ending also creates problems. The joyful rapport that Ambrose and Hadden-Patton share for three hours makes Eliza's choice rather melancholy. Both Ambrose and Higgins emote so much and look so crestfallen during their final scene together that instead of the empowering, uplifting "I am Eliza Doolittle, hear me roar" ending I think Sher wanted, we get Casablanca v. 2.0 with Eliza/Higgins substituting for Ilsa/Rick. Oh well. They'll always have the rain in Spain.


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