NEW YORK – “My Fair Lady” is one of the wittiest and most enjoyable musical comedies ever written. Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Lowe’s 1956 adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s play “Pygmalion” is being given a luxurious revival at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theatre.
Director Bartlett Sher, who has given a new sheen to classics like “South Pacific” and “The King and I,” now gives us a fresh look at “My Fair Lady,” including inspiration from Shaw’s 1913 version of “Pygmalion” and Gabriel Pascal’s 1938 film. Mr. Sher has made diminutive changes in Mr. Lerner’s musical libretto so that Eliza’s emotional independence blossoms along with her new phenetic prowess. This Cockney flower selling-girl turns into a charming, independant woman, respected and admired.
The cast that Mr. Sher has assembled is first-rate, although most are actors you’ve probably never heard of. Eliza is played by Lauren Ambrose, a redheaded American, born in New Haven. Her theatrical background has included Shakespeare in Central Park (Juliet and Ophelia) and on Broadway a revival of Clifford Odets' “Awake and Sing.” If her face looks at all familiar, it's because her most constant acting gig was on TV's “Six Feet Under.” Her singing voice is eloquent, a perfect soprano that never misses one of Mr. Lowe’s high notes. She does wonders with the beautiful “I Could of Danced All Night”
Playing the sometimes unreasonable and waspish Professors Higgins is an English actor, Harry Hadden-Paton. He is also best known for his work on television, Brit TV, as Bertie Pelham on “Downton Abbey” and Martin Charteris from “The Crown.” He does not have the Shavian star dash of the legendary Rex Harrison, who originated the role on Broadway and film, yet he is handsome, acts with force and serves as a good balance for Eliza.
Mr. Harrison was 48 when “Fair Lady” premiered with Broadway’s first Eliza, Julie Andrews, who was 20. That duo both seemed more like mentor and student. Here, Mr. Hadden-Paton and Ms. Ambrose both are in their late 30s or early 40s, so the thought of a romance is a possibility. What is also unique about Mr. Hadden-Paton is the fact that he can sing, unlike Mr. Harrison, who spoke-sang his musical numbers. It was accepted since audiences felt he was theater icon Rex Harrison. Now it is nice to hear Higgins' songs sung properly.
Mr. Sher’s take on “My Fair Lady” is not a matter of distortion, but it does have a slight different emphasis.Ms. Ambrose's is not a brawling street girl, but rather a young woman who is getting taught by a cantankerous professor of speech. Mr. Shaw modeled him on an Oxford phonetician Professor Henry Sweet. While Mr. Hadden-Paton has his charm, he is not really a romantic leading man and Shaw wanted it that way. He felt Higgins was a disdainful scientist, artfully experimenting with pupil Eliza. His upper-class character of Higgins is cooly and callously indifferent, not only to Eliza, but as his mother (played by the British actress Diana Rigg) points out, that's how he feels about everyone Shaw always intended his “Pygmalion” to show off Eliza's inclination to feminism, which was flowering in London around 1913. Suffragettes marched in every parade. I even think Mr. Sher includes a few in one of “My Fair Lady's” street scemes.
The “star” in this “My Fair Lady” is Norbert Leo Butz, who plays Eliza’s father, Alfred P. Doolittle. Mr. Butz is faultless in the role. He gives a hearty, boisterous and shrewdly true character performance. He gets the Shavain spirit, which is sharply satirical. He can be broad and use every comic trick from vaudeville to today, but somehow makes them all fit the frowsey character of Alfred P. Doolittle to a tee.
In the scene that brings Mr. Doolittle to the Wimpole Street home of Professor Higgins to barter away his daughter for five pounds — a great scene that Mr. Lerner lifted from “Pygmalion” — Mr. Butz is a wonder. When Alfred describes his unfortunate situation as one of the “undeserving poor,” Norbert put on a majestic manner. I don’t think the part has been played with as much art and hilarity as Mr. Butz gives. He romps through “A Little Bit of Luck” with a winking sense of roguery that is almost Falstaffian.
Has anyone considered Mr. Butz for Shakespearean roles? Producers and casting agents, take note. In act two, he gets another musical number, “Get Me to the Church on Time,” which he sings with mocking magnificence for all the rakish, untameable oldsters who have been resisting settling down with marriage vows.
I saw Ms. Rigg playing Eliza in London in 1974 with Alec McCowan. She brings a royal flair to Henry Higgins’ mother, and a keen sense of knowing with regard to her son. Allan Corduner plays Colonel Pickering, a Sanskrit expert. I remember him as Arthur Sullivan in Mike Leigh’s Gilbert & Sullivan bio film “Topsy-Turvy.” He is a great foil and balm for Professor Higgins. Jordan Donica is attractively idiotic as Eliza’s admirer, Freddie Eynsford-Hill, and sings, “On the Street Where You Live” faultlessly. Linda Muggleston is Higgins’ housekeeper, Mrs. Pearce, prim as she should be.
The inventive and energetic choreography is by Christopher Gattelli and his dancers take wing and soar through all the big musical numbers. They are also raucously hearty in supporting Mr. Butz in his lofty dancing numbers.
The scenery by Michael Yeargan conjures up 19th-century London, from Covent Garden to Ascot to Higgins’ library-like digs on Wimpole Street. Costumes by Catherine Zuber range from raffish for Mr. Doolittle and his rowdry friends to sumptuous for the formal Mr. Higgins and his mother's stylish posh pals. The show is lit by Donald Holder and the magnificient large orchestra is conducted by Ted Sperling.
The perception of Mr. Sher’s take on this “My Fair Lady” allows us to choose sides when it comes to where Eliza lands after the curtain falls. I will not reveal Mr. Sher’s choice — no spoilers here. But, I will say I think Shaw would have approved of it. I don’t think Eliza will stick around Wimpole Street finding Professor Higgins’ slippers for the rest of her life. Or that she will marry Freddie Eysnford-Hill. I think she will go commercial, take Professor Higgins’ methods and start her own phonetic business in a office off of Trafalgar Square. A Shavian choice that I think G. B. Shaw would cheer!
Bernard Carragher lives in New York and covers the arts and entertainment.