My Fair Lady review – dazzling Broadway revival is a sweet treat

Vivian Beaumont Theater, New York

Lauren Ambrose and Harry Hadden-Paton deliver standout performances in a crowd-pleasing new production of the classic tale

A splendiferous layer cake with a bittersweet core, Lerner and Loewe’s My Fair Lady has returned to Broadway in a smashing new production from Bartlett Sher (The Sound of Music, The King and I). Expertly acted, pleasingly sung, and often visually splendid, it makes a good faith attempt to honor the show’s history and intentions while also acknowledging the charged sexual politics of the moment. If its ending still doesn’t satisfy, maybe that’s because no My Fair Lady ending can.

The plot, adapted from George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, which in turn riffed on the ancient myth, ought to be familiar by now. When the phonetician Henry Higgins (Harry Hadden-Paton) slips into the Covent Garden flower market to record the voices of its sellers he cracks that he could make a grubby flower girl sound like a duchess. The grubby flower girl, Eliza (Lauren Ambrose), takes him up on the offer. And in a few months – through bullying and coaxing and rote pronunciation drills – he succeeds.

Before previews began there was some doubt as to whether Lauren Ambrose, best known for her work as a sardonic daughter on Six Feet Under, could handle the vocal duties. Turns out, Ambrose has a cherry-ripe soprano and if there is any justice those people are now at home eating their sheet music. Hadden-Paton is allowed to sing a little more of the score than Rex Harrison and he is very much up to the job.

If the casting isn’t unusual in vocal terms, it’s daring in chronological ones. Elizas are often barely out of their teens and Higginses are often in their 50s, which makes the mentee-mentor relationship starker and any frisson at least a little creepy. Here, Hadden-Paton is in mid-30s and Ambrose just a few years older. They are age mates and colleagues, both clever, both attractive, which makes the possibility and impossibility of a romance more poignant.

What’s most striking about the revival is the strength of the performances. Ambrose’s Eliza is immensely moving, yowling and cringing and ready to play the victim until she discovers her own great integrity. Haden-Paton is a playful and charismatic Higgins. Brash and witty, he doesn’t apologize for the character’s staggering lack of empathy, nor should he. Allan Corduner is a charming Pickering, Jordan Donica a suitably lovestruck and ineffectual Freddy. Norbert Leo Butz gives a riotous Get Me to the Church on Time, though an oddly subdued With a Little Bit of Luck. And if Dame Diana Rigg doesn’t have much to do as Mrs Higgins, she is still Dame Diana Rigg.

Sher is no natural comedian; once in a while the pace flags. But the Ascot number is actually funny, the ball scene is a dazzler, the orchestra is luxuriant and it all goes as smooth as a satin wrap until the end. Here’s how the published script finishes. Higgins, upset over Eliza’s departure from his home, consoles himself with a recording of her voice when the real Eliza enters. He wants to run to her (at least that’s what the stage directions say), but he can’t, so instead he says, “Where the devil are my slippers?” Eliza tears up, understanding this brusque demand as a declaration of love.

That’s a disaster. This ending asks Eliza to give up on being treated as a desiring subject who is in turn deserving of Higgins’s desire and respect. She has grown. He hasn’t. And his deficiencies will set the terms. If she stays, she’ll subjugate her own wants to Higgins’s stunted emotional life and misplaced footwear. Anyone who wants a romance between them shouldn’t want it like that.

Sher’s ending – and yes, spoilers will follow – acknowledges this script, but also tries to move on from it. Eliza does return, but after a sympathetic glance at Higgins, she breaks the fourth wall and strides up the aisle. This exit makes a kind of sense; this Eliza can’t stay, because of the bravery with which Ambrose plays her and because today’s sexual politics make that submission even more repellent. But why would Eliza return if she’s only going to leave a moment later? Give the man a minute to come around.

Something about the staging suggests that this may not be the real Eliza at all, but only a figment Higgins has dreamed to comfort himself, which seems an aggravating case of trying to have your layer cake and eat it, too.

We want Eliza and Higgins to get together, but they can’t, at least not in any way that stays even glancingly true to the psychology of each. That this My Fair Lady offers us this depth of character – and jokes and ball gowns and song after glorious song – suggests why it’s worth reviving, in this moment or any other.

Contributor

Alexis Soloski

The GuardianTramp

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