Stripped almost entirely of its romanticism and honed to a provocative post-Modern edge, Howard Davies’ staging of “My Fair Lady” delivers a jolt to those in search of a comforting throwback to Moss Hart’s original staging of the 1956 Lerner & Loewe blockbuster or George Cukor’s screen adaptation. With Richard Chamberlain’s tough-minded Henry Higgins and the endearingly confrontational Eliza Doolittle of Melissa Errico in a career-making performance , this “Lady” seems closer in spirit to “Pygmalion,” the Shaw play it’s based on. More a production for the age than for the ages, Errico’s knockout turn alone should keep the Virginia filled for a good long time.
Best known in New York for his deft stagings of Christopher Hampton’s adaptation of “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” and a revival of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” for a steamy Kathleen Turner, British director Davies has a special gift for divining ice water running through the veins of sexually torrid material.
The effect can be at once riveting and disturbing (as it was in “Liaisons”). This production owes much to his staging last year of “Pygmalion” for the Royal National Theater, where, with the brilliant set designer Ralph Koltai, Davies replaced the Edwardian niceties with a more contemporary vision of class and sexual conflict.
That may be well and good for “Pygmalion,” but the conceit transfers to “My Fair Lady” with more limited success: Here is Covent Garden suggested by stacks of shipping flats framing the buskers, peddlers and panhandlers in a striking, unhappy tableau vivant — a Joseph Cornell sculpture on a life-size scale. Nothing is prettified; here, “With a Little Bit of Luck” virtually comes off as an exercise in Brechtian alienation.
The “Ascot Gavotte”– whose startling monochrome is so ingrained in legend that Madonna pays tribute to it in her current show — is re-created as a living Magritte canvas, the actors in colorful finery descending from the flies to hover above the action against a field of brilliant blue. Do they obliterate all memory of the Oliver Smith/Cecil Beaton original? Not really.
For one thing, the effect is undermined by the ugly, iridescent pastels in which Patricia Zipprodt has dressed the women; more importantly, one is hard pressed to see the whole thing as more than an arresting visual gimmick.
Donald Saddler’s dances are serviceable for a show that isn’t much about dancing, with “Get Me to the Church on Time” the most rousing production number. The sets, “based on” Koltai’s originals, look like the touring knock-offs they are, though Natasha Katz’s fine lighting makes everything look quite respectable.
But it’s in the performances that Davies must make his case, and here, too, the result is at best mixed. Chamberlain, the star draw, is delightfully gruff without ever being really commanding as the brilliant but self-absorbed professor. The nasty imprecations Higgins hurls at Eliza generally dissipate in a benign bluster; even when he pulls himself up just short of throttling her, Chamberlain is never as threatening as the director seems to want him to be.
Moreover, there’s no spark in his relationship with Errico and thus a vast emptiness where “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” should be.
Paxton Whitehead is the very model of a modern, major Colonel, a stolid but humanizing force in these unfriendly environs. Robert Sella is abundantly hopeful and charming as Eliza’s suitor, Freddie Eynsford-Hill.
And the cast has a second revelation nearly the match of its Eliza: Her father, Alfred P. Doolittle — the working-class scoundrel all but tricked into middle-class respectability — is played by Julian Holloway, son of the actor who originated the role, Stanley Holloway. Julian presents a much darker character than his father did, without sacrificing the humor; a fine performance , it’s the one that best captures the director’s vision.
The only serious miscasting is Lisa Merrill McCord’s coarse, over-painted Mrs. Eynsford-Hill.
And then there is Errico. Her Eliza is self-confident, big-voiced and utterly warm, shaking up phrasings that were as familiar as lullabies, imprinting each remembered lyric with her own vocal stamp.
If only Zipprodt hadn’t given this Cinderella such a vulgar scarlet gown to wear to that ball at the embassy. No matter. Whatever she’s wearing, she’s absolutely loverly.