By Tulis McCall
This My Fair Lady is a winsome production. Don’t get to use that word in a sentence too often. But then you don’t see a confection of a Lerner and Loewe show too often either.
By now you all know the story. 1912 – London – Man, Henry Higgins (Harry Hadden-Payton), spots woman, Eliza Doolittle (Lauren Ambrose) selling flowers outside the opera on a late London spring night. This gal has spark and spit, but sounds like a car wreck when she speaks.
Higgins is s singularly self-absorbed man who has devoted his life studying people rather than being in relationship with them. Higgins’ focus is phonetics. It is his profession, he says, his hobby. Translation: this boy-o is one of the .05% and occupies his time with something he deems productive. On the night in question Higgins wages a fellow that he could clean Eliza up and pass her off as royalty given the time and means. Of course he is provided with both because this is a fairy tale. The stranger to whom he speculates his transformation idea turns out to be a fellow dialectician, Colonel Pickering (Allan Corrunder). When introduced to one another they immediately forget the woman and her flowers and gallivant off into a bromance. We follow.
Our man Higgins lives in a house, most of which is contained on a turntable of sorts and stored so far back on the stage that it appears to run the risk of tipping off the island and landing in the Hudson. Who knew the LCT stage was that deep? As it emerges from the gloom we discover a positively sumptuous study into which a person could fit several studio apartments if she had that sort of mind. This is a study fit for a king, or a man who fancies himself one. Over the course of the performance the turntable does, in fact, turn to reveal the garden, the foyer and the little room meant for bathing or studying depending on the day. The foyer, it should be noted, has on display a painting that looks suspiciously like Picasso’s Femme Assise, which was painted in 1909. This story taking place in 1912, it is plausible that Higgins would have such a painting. It also adds a whole other layer to this “ordinary man”.
It is into this fortress that Eliza marches. Face washed and agenda in hand. Higgins has pricked a boil by singling her out and shining a light on the possibility that she could change her circumstances if she upgraded her speechifying. It is a match of wits. Eliza wants speech lessons, and she will use the money Higgins threw at her the night before to pay for them. Pickering, however, raises the stakes and reminds Higgins of his wager about turning this sow’s ear into a silk purse. He offers to fund the enterprise. Offer accepted, and Eliza is, for all intents and purposes, kidnapped.
But not quite. As noted above, this is a woman on a mission. She wants to climb out of the hole where God and her father Alfred. P. Doolittle (Norbert Leo Butz) left her. She stays, but it is on her own terms. When Higgins pushes too hard she balks. When he is disagreeable she matches and raises him. The lessons grind on and the hearts begin to soften. Not obviously of course. Be we see.
The story flows along on gossamer wings. In a pivotal moment Higgins gently tells Eliza that hers is to conquer the majesty and grandeur of the English language, and he knows she will. Hearts melt. Eliza rises to the occasion.
Soon she’s attending Ascot (wearing a stunning hat that defies gravity) where she places her foot directly into her mouth. No matter. Next is a royal ball – just for Transylvanians, but still….. And for this Eliza is tarted up like a duchess. Like a live splendid statue. Higgins is knocked off his pins. The ball is a success, but this is where it all goes to hell in a handbag.
After the goal has been achieved. Eliza watches the boys congratulate themselves and realizes that to them she is a commodity. This is not QUITE the case, but it is her take. She was a challenge that THEY met. Her achievement is claimed as theirs. Eliza finally draws the line, and when it is crossed, she leaves.
Throughout this production we have seen the #MeToo moment poking its head into the interpretation. But it is in the last scenes where this flag flies high. In re-examining the play’s script I see that most of this dialogue was lifted verbatim from Shaw. Eliza demands to be visible, and when Higgins puts a lid on this idea – oh she is visible to him all right, but he would prefer to do everything his way – she refuses to go along.
Hadden-Paton is a mercurial performer. Even with his back turned toward the audience he is revealing this man of many layers. He brings to Higgins a vitality and vulnerability – and isn’t it a little odd to hear Higgins songs actually SUNG! As characters go, Higgins is the one that drives the story. Perhaps that is because the original Pygmalion was a man, a sculptor who fell in love with one of his statues. Because of his love she became a human.
Norbert Leo Butz is brilliant in his limited time on the stage. As Eliza’s father he is a happy resident of the lower class with no intention to move upward like his daughter. Get Me To The Church nearly stopped the show. You get the feeling that Butz would gladly lead us all out of the theatre to parade down Broadway if he had the chance.
Ambrose is a perfectly fine Eliza, with a lovely voice, who discovers her footing in the last third of the production. Diana Rigg should have more to say. Period. She is delicious. Jordan Donica was a bit too creased and a bit too loud as Freddie. The sound was off by miles – Leo Butz could barely be heard while Donica overwhelmed. Ambrose and Hadden-Paton could have used more juice as well. The production set design by Michael Yeargan soared with the London Street and Higgins lair, but the rest suffered from lack of attention. Costumes by Catherine Zuber were to die for, and every woman in that audience fantasized about being up there for the grand ball – that splendid chorus!!! The make it all look easy. Bravo to them.
Overall the direction plays it safe. Which is okay because the story takes over anyway. Lerner and Loewe – sublime. Sublime. Sublime. And magnificently presented by this 20 piece orchestra under the direction of Ted Sperling.
Not for nothin’ but the sexual tension here was pretty strong. Higgins brief flashes of romantic notions and glimpses of Eliza’s heart on her sleeve make direct hits on all of us. PS, instead of casting a Higgins that was several years older than Eliza, Mr. Sher instead chose to cast an Eliza who is 40 and a Higgins three years her junior. We like that. Like that a lot.
As to the ending – well, some may quibble with the conclusion of this production. But if you go back to the source material you will see that this choice was closer to Shaw’s than Lerner and Loewe’s original.
A lovely night. Earth shattering? No. But there are moments that will stick to your ribs.
My Fair Lady – Book And Lyrics By Alan Jay Lerner, Music By Frederick Loewe, Directed By Bartlett Sher
WITH Lauren Ambrose as Eliza Doolittle, Harry Hadden-Paton as Henry Higgins, Norbert Leo Butz as Alfred P. Doolittle, Diana Rigg as Mrs. Higgins, Allan Corduner as Colonel Pickering, Jordan Donica as Freddy Eynsford-Hill, Linda Mugleston as Mrs. Pearce, and Manu Narayan as Zoltan Karpathy
Cameron Adams, Shereen Ahmed, Kerstin Anderson, Heather Botts, John Treacy Egan, Rebecca Eichenberger, SuEllen Estey, Christopher Faison, Steven Trumon Gray, Adam Grupper, Michael Halling, Joe Hart, Sasha Hutchings, Kate Marilley, Liz McCartney, Justin Lee Miller, Rommel Pierre O’Choa, Keven Quillon, JoAnna Rhinehart, Tony Roach, Lance Roberts, Blair Ross, Christine Cornish Smith, Paul Slade Smith, Samantha Sturm, Matt Wall, Michael Williams, Minami Yusui, and Lee Zarrett.
Tickets to Lerner & Loewe’s MY FAIR LADY, priced from $87 to $177, are available at the Lincoln Center Theater box office, at telecharge.com, or by visiting www.MyFairLadyBway.com. A limited number of tickets priced at $32 are available at every performance through LincTix, LCT’s program for 21 to 35 year olds. For information and to enroll, visit LincTix.org.
Lincoln Center Theater is producing Lerner & Loewe’s MY FAIR LADY in association with Nederlander Presentations, Inc.