A restaging of Trevor Nunn’s hit 2001 revival that ran over two years in the West End but never made it to Broadway, this touring production of “My Fair Lady” has been playing smaller cities for the last few months, before hitting the Kennedy Center in D.C. and now Chicago. If it doesn’t quite have the freshness of feeling for which the London staging was praised, it’s still a fully satisfying, exceptionally high-level road production with jolts of genuine inspiration and all-around polish aplenty.
Without question, the show looks loverly. Sure, the conveyor belts had to be sacrificed, and the painted-on book shelves of Professor Higgins’ study shake a bit, but the grandness of the tuner comes through, with luxe costumes that pop and deeply expressive lighting that can lend a soft glow or cast a harsh light at all the appropriate moments. And — get this — the orchestra numbers 17, so Lerner and Loewe’s beloved score achieves appropriately fine musical swells.
Nunn’s conception was not especially radical in a show that feels wholly faithful to the original. A slight transposition from 1914 to 1910 allows designer Anthony Ward to clothe his Londoners in black (Edward VII died that year), and during one of the fluidly staged big numbers, Nunn pointedly shows us some suffragettes to emphasize socio-historical context while keeping us focused on the feminist elements that stem from George Bernard Shaw’s original “Pygmalion.”
There is a Beatrice and Benedick feistiness to the Eliza/Higgins relationship, and Nunn clearly intends to take iconic characters and give them greater psychological depth. While surrounded by an American cast, the leads are authentically English. Lisa O’Hare plays Eliza, nimbly pulling off the pluck, the charm, and the transformation from lower class flower-girl to toast of a royal ball.
As the pompous Professor Higgins, Christopher Cazenove (best known here for his TV role as Ben Carrington on “Dynasty”) doesn’t skimp on the arrogance. And he certainly hits all the right flustered marks when forced to confront his own attitudes in the second act if he wants to lure the run-away Eliza back into his good graces.
It’s during that second act, though, that the show’s joyfulness starts to tire. With the focus purely planted on Cazenove, there are just too many times when Rex Harrison come to mind. This may have simply been a commercial choice for a road tour — an attempt to satisfy those wanting to be reminded of the film. Or it may have been that Jonathan Pryce, who initiated the role in the revival, possessed a unique ability to re-invent the professor.
Make no mistake: Cazenove gives a fine performance, skilled, solid and spirited. But it feels too familiar for a production that often promises more than cozy nostalgia.
When the show does feel fresh, it’s exciting. The ever-inventive Matthew Bourne stages the musical numbers with a disdain for the static. The early “With a Little Bit of Luck,” lead here by a dynamic, superb Tim Jerome as Alfred P. Doolittle, climaxes with a dance using garbage can lids.
Even better is the scene at the races. The “Ascot Gavotte” makes the best use of those black costumes to create a sequence that looks like a gorgeous painting, delights with Bourne’s equine-inspired, galloping gambols, and possesses such dry class satire one can even imagine it making Shaw smile. It’s easily the most indelible, purely delicious scene in this always elegant production.