In the last decade, musical theater has welcomed what can almost be termed a new genre:
The Lincoln Center Theater / Bartlett Sher Faithful Yet Innovative April Revival of a Tony-winning Best Musical.
First came the stunning SOUTH PACIFIC in 2008. THE KING AND I made a majestic appearance in 2015. Now we have, to use a much-too-well-worn cliché, the third jewel of the triple crown: MY FAIR LADY.
Producing artistic director Andre Bishop seemingly spares no expense with sets, costumes and grand orchestra that even includes a harp. Thanks to him and Sher, class, taste, style and intelligence – once the hallmark of Broadway musicals – are able to make a return.
Even before the show begins, we get an arresting image. Far downstage is a basket of flowers – Eliza Doolittle’s, of course – looking meek and mild in front of Michael Yeargan’s vast panorama of elegant London that spills beyond the stage and into the house. That’s an unexpectedly clever way of showing the wide gulf between the British upper-classes and its underprivileged. We’ll see that attitude come to life when Professor Henry Higgins mocks Eliza for not speaking The King’s English in a regal manner.
Sher has cast a much younger-than-usual Higgins: Harry Hadden-Paton, who recently celebrated his 37th birthday. The legendary Rex Harrison was 11 years older when he originated the role and (gulp!) literally twice Hadden-Paton’s age when he did the 1981 revival. We did mind the gap when Eliza walked out on Higgins midway through Act Two; she seemed to be leaving an old man who’d need her for the perils of dotage that were soon to come.
That’s hardly the case here.
Hadden-Paton smiles before he tells the Covent Garden workers that the reason he can tell where a person was born and raised is “simple phonetics” – not as a way of bragging, but in showing that he takes genuine pleasure in his work. When he gets to “Why Can’t the English?” he sings the notes that Frederick Loewe wrote and doesn’t just speak Alan Jay Lerner’s lyrics, as has usually been the case since the pipes-impaired Harrison originated the role.
Some have alleged that Lauren Ambrose, now 40, is too old. Her added years make her situation all the more dire; life is passing by more quickly now, and if something doesn’t happen soon, her dreams will have to die.
So Ambrose’s Eliza knows that we must be ready when opportunity strikes. If she’s ever to get herself literally out of the gutter and ensconced in a flower shop, Higgins is her one chance.
Wouldn’t that be loverly? The way Ambrose delivers the most colorful and perceptive image “I would never budge till spring crept over me window sill” shows early on that she has potential.
In the middle of that song, Sher provides a poignant image by giving an entrance to a woman maneuvering a large pushcart full of gloriously beautiful flowers. It establishes that Eliza’s job is more difficult than we might have realized, for she’ll lose customers to this superior vendor.
Which of us cannot relate to the fear we feel when we enter a house which we believe belongs to our betters? Ambrose makes us care for Eliza by making her more demure when she ventures into Higgins’ digs.
It’s quite a place. Michael Yeargan doesn’t just give us Higgins’ usual study. We also see the bathroom (and the episode seen in the Oscar-winning film where Eliza is scrubbed up by the help) and a hallway with a long staircase. It’s all on a turntable and pretty impressive, although a case can be made that it wasn’t all together necessary to see the extra rooms.
Back to Ambrose, who shows how astonished Eliza is when Colonel Pickering is unexpectedly nice to her. She notices the bouquet of fresh flowers in a vase, and sees what happens to her wares when they leave her modest basket. When Higgins feeds her a chocolate, her distinctive blink lets us know he only buys the very best.
Enter Alfred P. Doolittle, who plans to benignly pimp his daughter to Higgins claiming that they are “men of the world.” Norbert Leo Butz amuses the way he gets casual and comfy on Higgins’ desk while dispensing the brass-tacks information. Sher also gives a new twist to the moment that the gussied-up Eliza enters and passes her father; until now, he’s never recognized her for she’s so changed. But as Launcelot Gobbo taught us in THE MERCHANT OF VENICE, “It is a wise father that knows his own child.” Despite the fact that Higgins doesn’t think much of Eliza, he does come to admire her daddy.
That may be a product of misogyny – and a reason why Hadden-Paton doesn’t castigate and bully Eliza nearly as much as previous Higginses have. The words are powerful and potently offensive, so Sher has soft-pedaled the approach. The result is that Higgins seems a tad toothless and that Hadden-Paton lacks star-power. All in all, though, the approach may well be the best one for 2018 now that we’ve all come to flinch when men abuse women even verbally.
(On the other hand, the fact that Higgins isn’t so horrid makes Sher’s new interpretation of the final scene between the two not as convincing.)
Up to now, when Elizas have finally come out with their first correct rain-Spain-mainly-plain line, they’ve done it with a slight pause to show that victory doesn’t come easily. When Ambrose is about to get it right, she struggles with each word, starting every one in the incorrect manner before turning it around into the right one. This makes for a more believable scenario and a greater dance of victory.
Speaking of dance: Peter (1776) Stone often said during the ‘80s and ‘90s that British musicals had replaced choreography with dancing scenery. Such long-runners as LES MISERABLES, THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, MISS SAIGON and SUNSET BOULEVARD proved his point. They didn’t offer much in the way of production numbers or eleven o’clockers, but, my, were the barricade, chandelier, helicopter and floating mansion impressive as they danced into place.
In a manner of speaking, MY FAIR LADY was a much earlier British musical that had offered very little dancing, too. Of course it isn’t literally British; its book and lyrics were written by all-American Alan Jay Lerner and its music emerged from the Berlin-born Viennese composer Frederick Loewe. However, the show is based on a quintessentially British work – PYGMALION – and deals with the aforementioned British issues of class distinction and proper pronunciation.
Ambrose received one of the greatest compliments an audience can deliver at the performance I attended. Just as she was beginning to sing the last “night” on “I Could Have Danced All Night,” theatergoers could not contain their enthusiasm and started clapping then, quite a few seconds before she finished the note and the song came to an end. Those who doubted she could sing the show have been proved utterly wrong.
As Pickering, Allan Corduner doesn’t harrumph his way into caricature but creates a fine human being. Linda Mugleston is an excellent Mrs. Pearce – one of those servants who believes that because she works for a grand man, she too must be grand.
The real standout, however, is Diana Rigg as Mrs. Higgins. At the Ascot races (where Catherine Zuber’s elegant costumes match the lilac trees about which Jordan Donica will soon expertly sing), watch Rigg’s facial expressions as Eliza digs herself into a very deep hole (despite her not saying “‘ole”). Rigg tries to stay composed and be a good sport while also managing to express a quiet panic over what the poor lass might say next.
Lincoln Center gives a new look to these vintage musicals because the Vivian Beaumont’s thrust stage gives a show additional space to breathe. The theater’s stadium seating is a boon for attendees, for even if LeBron James is seated in front of you, you’ll still be able to see over him. And in this production, to quote a song legitimately sung by an actress in one film who wasn’t allowed to sing in the MY FAIR LADY film, there’s such a lot of world to see.