My Fair Lady

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My Fair Lady

Vivian Beaumont Theatre, NYC, April 22, 2018

Reviewed by Elizabeth Ahlfors for Cabaret Scenes

Photo: Joan Marcus

Lauren Ambrose

“Just You Wait!” Wait and watch in awe what Bartlett Sher has done to his stunning production of My Fair Lady at Lincoln Center Theater. Neither updated nor re-molded, it is of its time, and yet contemporary, with the essence of George Bernard Shaw’s 1913 vision of Pygmalion’s Eliza Doolittle, his spunky Cockney “guttersnipe.” When embellished in 1956 with the glorious songs of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, My Fair Lady took its place as one of the classics of musical theater. With current performances by Lauren Ambrose and Harry Hadden-Paton and a show-stopping sequence by Norbert Leo Butz, this is a glorious production, complete with imaginative sets, gorgeous costumes, and the decisive image of Eliza sweeping off the stage and down the aisle.

With her swept-up red hair and melodious vocals, Lauren Ambrose brings a fiery independence to this production. Unlike the original musical with Julie Andrews and the memorable 1963 film’s Audrey Hepburn, Ambrose is a 40-year-old, young-looking Eliza. Phoneticist Henry Higgins, Harry Hadden-Paton, age 32, is far younger than the original Rex Harrison and, incidentally, younger than Ambrose.
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Yet their fit is “loverly” and clearly emotional. From the top, Ambrose proves Eliza’s toughness and drive, turning up at Higgins’ door so he can make true his boast the night before at Covent Garden. As she tried to sell him flowers, he had commented that he could teach her to speak correctly predicting, “I could even get her a place as a lady’s maid or shop assistant.” But what all Eliza really wanted was a comfortable room somewhere, “Warm face, warm hands, warm feet! Oh, Wouldn’t it be loverly?”  

A bright and sensitive actress, Ambrose (TV’s Six Feet Under) has a secure soprano and handles the familiar songs beautifully, showcasing “I Could Have Danced All Night” and, with roaring anger, “Just You Wait.” Like Rex Harrison, Hadden-Paton (TV’s Downton Abbey as Bertie), largely speak-sings and eloquently delivers the impeccable lyrics. “I’m an Ordinary Man” and “Why Can’t the English?” illustrate his total involvement with himself and his imperiousness toward Eliza—”you squashed cabbage leaf, you disgrace to the noble architecture of these columns, you incarnate insult to the English language.”

While Higgins’ prediction of someday passing Eliza off as duchess at an Embassy ball proves correct, Eliza actually has her first appearance as a “lady” at the legendary Ascot races, albeit a bit awkwardly, in her stunning, long Catherine Zuber gown, trying to manipulate among the swells. While Cecil Beaton’s set and costumes are unforgettable from the 1964 film and the original musical, Michael Yeargan’s delicate setting with Zuber’s silver and mauve costumes and elaborate hats, all highlighted by Donald Holder, also bring appreciative sighs from the audience.
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At the exciting big race, complete with thundering hoofprints (kudos to Marc Salzberg’s sound design), Eliza loses her ladylike restraint, exploding with a rousing “Come on, Dover!!! Move your bloomin’ arse!!!”

Norbert Leo Butz has a grand time as Eliza’s slyly manipulative father, Alfred P. Doolittle, “one of the undeserving poor.” While Doolittle now spies money coming into his life through Eliza and wants to reap the rewards, he is most comfortable with his old life and old chums. Who can blame him when the old blokes “pull out the stopper” and “have a whopper,” in a spectacular “Get Me to the Church on Time” sequence highlighted by Christopher Gattelli’s exuberant can-can dancers in drag.

Spot-on supporting cast members include Diana Rigg playing Higgins’ mother, an elegant but down-to-earth lady who is well aware of her son’s arrogance. The part of Higgins’ associate, Colonel Pickering, is adeptly played by Allan Corduner. Jordan Donica is a love-struck, incompetent Freddy who won’t give up pursuing Eliza. Although his rich baritone rendition of “On the Street Where You Live” is mellow, he does not capture the spirited Eliza’s interest. 

Hadden-Paton shows Higgins as well-educated but immature, and his relationship with Eliza evolves, but only up to a point. With a vibrant singing voice, his understated love song, “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face,” is bittersweet. Her last song to him, “Without You,” is stinging, stating, “I can stand on my own without you.” 

The Lerner and Loewe score is sublime, with music direction by Ted Sperling leading a 29-piece orchestra. Michael Yeargan fills the stage with decorative sliding sets with London streets, Covent Garden, the local pub, and zeroes in on the revolving stage Henry Higgins’ Wimpole Street townhouse. 

Bartlett Sher gives magical inspiration to his My Fair Lady, directing it to a contemporary audience with his magnificent theatricality and Shaw’s ambiguous ending.

Elizabeth Ahlfors

Born and raised in New York, Elizabeth graduated from NYU with a degree in Journalism. She has lived in various cities and countries and now is back in NYC. She has written magazine articles and published three books: A Housewife’s Guide to Women’s Liberation, Twelve American Women, and Heroines of ’76 (for children). A great love was always music and theater—in the audience, not performing. A Philadelphia correspondent for and InTheatre Magazine, she has reviewed theater and cabaret for the Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia City News. She writes for Cabaret Scenes and other cabaret/theater sites. She is a judge for Nightlife Awards and a voting member of Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle.