Lauren Ambrose in ‘My Fair Lady.’ (Photo: Joan Marcus)
By Matthew Wexler
If ever there were a theatrical institution to present a first-rate revival of Lerner and Loewe’s My Fair Lady, it’d be Lincoln Center Theater. Director Bartlett Sher’s recent track record includes successful reimaginings of The King and I and South Pacific, and he returns again to the Vivan Beaumont stage to mount a thoughtful production starring Lauren Ambrose as Eliza Doolittle, the flower girl turned debutante, and Harry Hadden-Paton as her rigid mentor, Professor Henry Higgins.
Rodgers & Hammerstein famously spent a year trying to adapt Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion into a musical but to no avail. Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe stepped in, having had previous successes with Brigadoon and Paint Your Wagon but this one nearly did them in, too. The plot’s dual commentary on Edwardian London’s class system and the intimate relationships between pupil and teacher requires a deft hand. The original production, starring Julie Andrews and Rex Harrison, swept up five Tony Awards, including Best Musical, but subsequent revivals (three excluding the current incarnation) have been less successful.
After encountering Higgins and Colonel Pickering (Allan Corduner) outside the Royal Opera House where an informal bet is placed on whether the crude girl could be transformed into a lady, Eliza pays a visit to Higgins’ palatial home to engage his services in elocution and etiquette. He accepts the challenge and the pair gets to work. They go for a test run at a horse race in Ascot, where Eliza meets the charming Freddy Eynsford-Hill (Jordan Donica) amid a gorgeously costumed (Catherine Zuber) ensemble. Small sparks fly, but Eliza isn’t quite up to snuff (there’s still a whole other act to get through). As expected, she eventually turns from weed to rose, and in the process, softens Higgins’ stony exterior.
Meanwhile, Eliza’s father, Alfred (Norbert Leo Butz) represents a contrasting perspective on London society, perfectly content to spend his days drinking at the local pub, until he falls into some money through a clever plot twist and begrudgingly joins the bourgeoisie.
There is much reference in the current edition of the Lincoln Center Theater Review (a beautifully redesigned print publication by the theater to offer dramaturgical insight into the current season) about Shaw’s play as source material, which makes me wonder—why not present Pygmalion? Because then we’d miss the trunk of classics that include “I Could Have Danced All Night,” “On the Street Where You Live,” “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face,” and more. Frankly, I’d be okay with that.
Music director Ted Sperling has brought out the best of his principal performers, and the score’s lush arrangements sound as sweeping as ever, but it is Ambrose and Paton’s deep dive into the pair’s complex relationship that truly makes My Fair Lady sing, helped along by Diana Rigg’s eloquent and captivating performance as Higgins’ mother.
Industry insiders have heard rumblings for years of Sher’s desire to work with Ambrose, and while at first glance, Eliza Doolittle might not be the perfect fit, she makes Eliza her own as a fiery, resilient woman unwilling to be defined by the class she was born into. Ambrose tackles Loewe’s score with the determination befitting her character, and it’s only when the score soars to a high G that my ears drifted to Julie Andrews. Paton, on the other hand, shows more vocal prowess than the usual Higgins as well as dashing good looks that put him and Eliza on a more even playing field in the romance department.
But that romance is ultimately one-sided. My Fair Lady is not a love story. It is a story about the ability to love, which Higgins discovers in his own evolution, which is perhaps more internally dramatic than that of Eliza. There’s also subtle misogyny that never seems to unveil itself from Wimpole Street. Men are meant to be leaders in thought and commerce. Women are meant to look pretty and speak with proper vowel placement.
A similar story (though much less successfully told) is being presented a few blocks down at Studio 54 in the clunky revival of Children of a Lesser God. Man meets woman. Man fixes woman. Woman now has a better place in society. Do I suggest that these works be indefinitely shelved because of their patriarchal themes? Not necessarily.
Anyone familiar with My Fair Lady knows of the musical’s famous last line, as Higgins asks, “Eliza, where the devil are my slippers?” It is a moment of transformation. In this case, after nearly three hours of Michael Yeargan’s gorgeous but occasionally lumbering sets rolling about the stage, Eliza touches Higgins’ cheek and walks not out the door or up the stairs of his study, but off the stage through a vomitorium in the audience as if she’s transcending time. More of a “huh?” than an “aha” moment, it leaves me wondering where the Elizas of today are headed next.
My Fair Lady
Lincoln Center Theater at the Vivian Beaumont
150 West 65th Street, NYC