“My Fair Lady” At The Vivian Beaumont Theatre, Saturday, April 14th, 2018, Reviewed
My fear was that #metoo were coming after Henry Higgins but it was not to be… except for that always unsatisfying conclusion, which the Lincoln Center production fails to fix, this revival of Lerner and Lowe’s “My Fair Lady” is just like their recent “South Pacific” and “The King And I,” a straightforward and first class production of one of Broadway’s most beloved musicals with a little widening of actors ethnicity for inclusions sake. And while neither Lauren Ambrose as Eliza Doolittle the flower girl who takes lessons to become a lady, nor provider Harry Hadden-Paton as Henry Higgins attempting to win a bet, are a Julie Andrews or a Rex Harrison, they are more than adequate in their roles.
“My Fair Lady” is a formatting of the myth of Pygmalion, Higgins sculpts a work of art (a common flower girl who he remakes into a Lady) and then falls in love with it. However, this was based upon the great George Bernard Shaw’s play, and right at the top is a comedy of manners and class and middle class morality in Edwardian England. In 2018, Higgins is even more brutal than he was in 1956, and while lowering his age so that Eliza’s desire for him makes more sense, if you overthink the situation it leaves a bad taste in your mouth. You have to ignore it, you can’t spend all your life revisiting old works of art to refine them for modern social mores. They must sign as sign posts as to how far we’ve come.
“My Fair Lady” hasn’t opened yet but it will be a smash hit. There isn’t a bad song in its entire 160 minutes, it isn’t a question of showstoppers, it’s a question of how many. They miss “The Rain In Spain” but make up for it with the greatest “Get Me To The Church On Time” I’ve ever seen. The orchestra, who are hidden from view in the first act (all I could see from the fourth row was the conductor Ted Sperling waving his baton -he performed the same role for the before mentioned major revivals as well as “The Light In The Piazza”), emerge on the stage during the climatic Ball at the Embassy in the second act. This is a full 30 piece orchestra and the music shows no strain being compared by the great orchestras of the past: no corners are cut and the sound is terrific.
The staging is its equal and more so, the sets go from Covent Garden to Ascot and beyond but settle into 27a Wimpole street, Higgins home. The home is a wonderful thing, with three rooms that skip and slide from one to another like “Cursed Child” or something. The entire stage is alight with London, flowers and dresses, scruff and high society, it is a joy to look at.
However, again, with the exception of Diana Rigg as Henry’s mother, the show lacks star power. Norbert Leo Butz is a great Broadway actor, his performance in “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” remains a delight, and he is very good as Eliza’s father, the original moralist Alfred P. Doolittle. In most occasions that would be sufficient, and Norbert gets all his moments, but he isn’t Stanley Holloway’s British Music Hall virtuosity. He just can’t be. Here is a comparison, Nathan Lane to Zero Mostel in “A Funny Thing Happened To Me On The Way To The Forum,” nobody thinks Lane didn’t do a great job but he was no Mostel.
Harry Hadden-Paton, by being still a misogynist, but a handsome man much closer to Eliza’s age, manages to remove a sugar daddy from the reference points and it makes his transference as Eliza makes her, very believable. This Higgins is not superior to Doolittle. Lauren Ambrose is a fine actor, and she captures Eliza, sublime as you watch her fall in love with Higgins just before “Rain In Spain,” and her voice is lovely. But she isn’t quite right for the role, when Audrey and Julie transform, come to life, their beauty is a revelation, Lauren can’t pull that off. She is perhaps too contemporary for the role.
Which leads us to the end… which reminds me a touch of the ending of “The Magus,” whether Eliza stays or leaves Higgins is open to interpretation, in the movie she stays, in this production she leaves. Neither is particularly satisfying and after nearly three hours it is still a blot on the book. I’m a romantic and I want them together, I think they should kiss. But why complain about a musical with “On The Street Where You Live,” “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly,” “With A Little Bit Of Luck”… and more, much more more, in it filled to the edges with color and sound, beauty and intelligence? What a wonderful thing the Broadway Musical can be, more than fair.