While most productions of “My Fair Lady” are awash in class, the 2001 National Theater of Great Britain revival overflows with class consciousness. Original helmer Trevor Nunn unearths, within Lerner and Loewe’s timeless tuner of transformation, a pertinent social critique harking back to Shaw’s “Pygmalion” original. Part of an ongoing U.S. tour that so far has bypassed Gotham, production is a more character-driven, deeply felt “My Fair Lady” than most (and more so than the 1964 film). But at the price of a certain heaviness, material’s essential joie de vivre is offset by a cold center.
From the opening tableau separately pinspotting an overdressed dowager and downtrodden flower girl Eliza Doolittle (Lisa O’Hare; Dana DeLisa at selected matinees), Nunn highlights a social dichotomy. He explores the motives and effects of philanthropy against a background of stylized sets (Anthony Ward) and lighting (David Hersey) that seek and often find the universal in the Edwardian particular: Higgins’ overstuffed but humanity-free library; blue sky and leafy clouds belying the formality of the Ascot races.
Christopher Cazenove’s Henry Higgins is a blandly dour social engineer grimly certain of what’s best for everyone, channeling Rex Harrison’s voice through Christopher Hitchens, whom Cazenove distinctly resembles. It’s a pity the concept requires suppressing Harrison’s amused twinkle, which might have tempered Cazenove’s startlingly overdone second act anger when his “living doll,” recipient of his largesse, turns on him.
Eliza’s desire to raise her station — wouldn’t it be loverly? — is made a long-abiding need, O’Hare turning the usually scoffing retort “Who’d marry me?” into a glimpse of a careworn soul. Like most Elizas, O’Hare is far more convincing as elegant swan than ugly duckling, but she generates unusual poignancy in the wake of Higgins’ Pygmalion experiment.
Nunn sees George Bernard Shaw’s balancing, invigorating “life force” as the province of those of either class who possess their natural self, such as Eliza’s genial dustman father, Alfie (Tim Jerome), and Higgins’ mother (the winning Marni Nixon, Eliza’s singing voice in the 1964 pic). Thrust of this interpretation has Higgins and Eliza ultimately moving to that place of balance, their destiny to become a sort of Tracy and Hepburn or Astaire and Rogers (he gives her class; she gives him her flower).
Production gains heft in suggesting the complex politics underlying the transfer of cash from above to below. Key sequence has Eliza, having triumphed in her Embassy Ball impersonation, returning to Covent Garden to sit in the exact same spot as her opening song to realize upward mobility isn’t so loverly after all.
Meanwhile, a millionaire’s unexpected bequest pulls Alfie into dreaded “middle class morality,” inspiring production’s conceptual and musical high point, choreographer Matthew Bourne’s reimagination of “Get Me to the Church on Time.” Jerome expertly details Doolittle’s desperate quest through London’s fleshpots to hang onto his cherished amoral freedom open only to the poor.
This proves the dancingest “My Fair Lady” ever. Bourne memorably assigns horselike stamps and beastly silhouettes to the aristocratic racegoers in his priceless “Ascot Gavotte.” (Clad in black out of respect for the newly deceased Edward VII, ensemble extends show’s satire: They’ll mourn their king, all right, but closing the racing season would be too much.)
For all the interest in the clash of high-born and low-, much of this production sits in a muddy middle. While flower girls and dustmen look tidily pressed, Ward’s Embassy Ball gowns are drab. Underlit Covent Garden opening is rushed, as are Eliza’s perfunctory Ascot faux pas (“Move your bloomin’ arse!”) and the consternation at ball’s end.
Some numbers seem done by the numbers, notably O’Hare’s mechanical “Just You Wait,” while the “Stomp”-like percussion break in “With a Little Bit of Luck” lacks spontaneity and build. On press night, conductor James Lowe seemed to struggle to keep cast and the thin-sounding orchestra together.
Most surprisingly for a show whose overarching concern is language, cast tends to turn Alan Jay Lerner’s sparkling lyrics into puzzles to be solved on the fly — a special irony considering the perfect diction boasted by the Ahmanson’s previous touring tenant, “Sweeney Todd,” a very different take on the dynamic of rich and poor in bygone England.