New York City Theater
"My Fair Lady"
Vivian Beaumont Theater
Lauren Ambrose. Remember that name. The actress, so wonderfully caustic on TV’s “Six Feet Under,” is also the finest stage Juliet in this critic’s memory. Making her musical debut as Eliza Doolitle in director Bartlett Sher’s “thrilling, absolutely thrilling” revival of the magnificent “My Fair Lady” at Lincoln Center, Ambrose is sensational. Warm and tender as she can be, yearning, ambitious, cautious, fiery, calculating, subtle, she possesses a deep understanding of the pragmatic guttersnipe with dreams.
If you think you’ve seen the show before -- and who hasn’t? – you’re in for a surprise. Not only is the production beautiful to hear, not only does it retain the intelligence and conflicts of Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion,” not only does it make pallid this season’s thin crop of tuners, it stands on its own as fresh as it ever was.
Frederick Loewe’s music and Alan Jay Lerner’s book and lyrics flow seamlessly. Who can resist “I Could Have Danced All Night,” “On the Street Where You Live,” “Wouldn’t it be Loverly” and “Get Me to the Church on Time” not to mention the heartbreaking “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face”?
Without changing a word, under Bartlett Sher’s genius direction, the evening makes relevant in these #MeToo times the classic myth of the man who, falling in love with a statue of his own making, yearns to bring her to life. Shaw uses the myth to tell of a phonetician who boasts he can make a “lady” out of a ragamuffin, cockney flower girl by teaching her to speak properly.
Shaw, in addition to being a socialist fed up with class distinctions, was a feminist. He believed in equal opportunity in marriage, employment and finances. No wonder, then, that among the crowds in “My Fair Lady,” Sher finds room for a parade of suffragettes bearing signs demanding the vote.
In winning his bet of transforming Eliza, Higgins sets off a chain of buried feelings. Eliza, finding her true voice, rebels against Higgins’ callous treatment of her, while he ostensibly sees her as merely an empty vessel to be filled with his knowledge. Angry with himself for having his façade pierced, this “confirmed old bachelor” has his values challenged by a determined young woman who knows her own mind.
Harry Hadden-Paton is an exasperating, exasperated Henry Higgins. Vulnerable yet egocentric, attractive yet stiff, Hadden-Paton creates a character so ennobled by his self, so frightened of feelings, he cannot see beyond his learning. But watch that last smile: it fits in with the production’s ambiguity.
As Alfred, Eliza’s bilious father, Norbert Leo Butz is hilarious. His “Get Me to the Church” is both raucous and touching. Allan Corduner is a cold Colonel Pickering, but the great Diana Rigg is a warm Mrs. Higgins, Henry’s mum. Whether bemused by Eliza’s gaffes or sympathetic to the young woman’s troubles, Rigg sure knows how to hold a stage. Jordan Donica as Eliza’s suitor, Freddy, gives a powerful rendition of “On the Street Where You Live.”
Christopher Gattelli’s choreography is tasteful, Michael Yeargan’s scenery is heavy, Catherine Zuber’s costumes are gorgeous and Donald Holder’s lighting adds its own sparkle to an already sparkling occasion. And let’s hail conductor Ted Sperling and his two-dozen-plus-piece orchestra for its lushness and precision that had the audience applauding even during the overture.
All in all, a bloody brilliant evening!
--David A. Rosenberg
May 8, 2018