If anyone needed to make a case for “My Fair Lady” being a perennially viable candidate for Broadway revival, then the splendid cast of this vibrantly staged New York Philharmonic concert presentation makes it loud and clear. Lerner and Loewe’s beloved 1956 classic not only boasts sterling songs that elevate the spirits, it also features a book that remains remarkably witty a half-century later. The enduring musicalization of “Pygmalion” serves up George Bernard Shaw’s wry skewering of the class divide, sexual politics and foolish social conventions with aplomb.
Given that there have been three main-stem New York revivals since the original Broadway production closed in 1962 after 6½ years, “My Fair Lady” is certainly not languishing in the neglected-works vault. But it’s among the most sturdy and satisfying examples of the traditional musical model. Nothing quite hammers that home like hearing it played by a full orchestra. Under guest conductor Rob Fisher, the NY Philharmonic gives Robert Russell Bennett and Philip J. Lang’s lustrous original orchestrations brisk, buoyant treatment — lush and full-bodied or subtle and delicate as required.
Then there’s the cast. Kelsey Grammer was perhaps an obvious choice for Henry Higgins. What was “Frasier” after all if not a contemporary counterpart of the fussy phonetics scholar — a likable snob with the plummiest of vowels, inept in his dealings with women and living on a cloud of intellectual and cultural superiority? But Grammer is an impeccable comedian. He takes those essential qualities and expands upon them in a nicely rounded characterization, tossing off humorously rude remarks with delicious understatement and amusing obliviousness to his insensitivity.
The professor in “My Fair Lady” was created by non-singer Rex Harrison who pretty much monologued his songs, so the role doesn’t call for a robust singing voice. But while Grammer stays close to the standard delivery, he also shows he can gracefully carry a tune — beyond “Tossed Salad and Scrambled Eggs.”
The role that does demand stellar vocals is Eliza Doolittle, the cockney flower girl plucked from the streets by Henry to be turned, as part of a wager, from a “squashed cabbage leaf” to a duchess. One of the musical stage’s most luminous young talents, Kelli O’Hara (“The Light in the Piazza,” “The Pajama Game”) doesn’t disappoint. She has the porcelain beauty, the pluck and the touching vulnerability, and is at her best when the regal butterfly emerges from the soot-stained cocoon. Most of all, though, she has the voice. Her light, airy soprano is as clean and stirring an instrument as any audience could wish for in Eliza.
O’Hara can be quietly wistful on “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly,” angry and defiant on “Show Me” and “Just You Wait,” or rapturously transported on “I Could Have Danced All Night,” one of the evening’s chief showstoppers. Similar heights are scaled by angelic-voiced tenor Philippe Castagner as Eliza’s luckless suitor Freddy in his gloriously romantic “On the Street Where You Live.”
Handsomely costumed by Gail Baldoni and designed with tidy economy by Ray Klausen (the stage is flanked by Georgian doorways — one for the Lion’s Head Pub, the other for 27A Wimpole Street), the production is far more elaborate than the average concert presentation.
Director James Brennan ably marshals a large ensemble of choral singers and dancers, and while choreographer Peggy Hickey doesn’t rival Matthew Bourne’s dynamic staging of the big numbers in the 2001 National Theater production (heading to the Ahmanson in Los Angeles next spring), she delivers plenty of knees-up boisterousness and cartwheeling athleticism. Straying very little from the classic staging and from Cecil Beaton’s iconic black and white outfits, the “Ascot Gavotte” scene is a particular delight.
Brennan also looks beyond the songs to breathe texture into the book scenes (clipped by Encores! vet David Ives for the occasion), notably Eliza and Henry’s moody clash after he fails to acknowledge her part in the Embassy Ball triumph. The show’s second-act sentimentality and the improbability of Eliza and Henry’s future relationship have often been criticized as a betrayal of Shaw’s play. But here there’s no question of Eliza continuing to fetch the professor’s slippers. She comes back, but when O’Hara sits down and clasps her arms tightly at the end, it’s clear she won’t play the dutiful mouse.
Supporting characters are drawn with equal care and depth, notably Charles Kimbrough’s Colonel Pickering, all gentlemanly ditheriness and befuddled exasperation; and Marni Nixon’s dignified Mrs. Higgins. Bittersweet as it is to consider Nixon’s history with this musical — she was the unseen singing voice of Audrey Hepburn in George Cukor’s movie — it’s lovely to watch her dispensing droll wisdom and restrained dismay as she witnesses her son’s constant gaffes.
Perhaps the production’s most unexpected blessing, however, is Brian Dennehy as Eliza’s dustman father. Described by Professor Higgins as “one of the most original moralists in all of England,” Alfred P. Doolittle is an irresistible reprobate whose pliant attitudes toward fatherhood, marriage, privilege and responsibility make him the most irreverent Shavian character on view.
Sandwiching this four-performance event in just a week before starting previews in “Inherit the Wind” on Broadway, Dennehy brings stout good humor and surprising musicality to the role, not to mention some amusing twinkle-toed dance moves. Backed by tuneful barber-shop harmonizing from his layabout drinking buddies, his songs, “With a Little Bit of Luck” and “Get Me to the Church on Time,” are among the high points of a genuinely pleasurable production.