You could be forgiven for thinking that “My Fair Lady” is so perfectly crafted that all a director need do is get out of the way. Wrong. Many productions survive by delivering those famous songs (and budgeting a hefty sum for costumes), but in fact, its wit and surprising emotional depth demand a helmer who can balance both text and the celebrated score. Daniel Evans achieves all that and more. His glorious production represents his first tuner as a director and will certainly not be his last.
Evans’ dynamic yet ideally unforced tone is set up by Paul Wills’ versatile design, which uses a turntable to switch easily between the grand arched windows of Covent Garden market — home to Eliza (Carly Bawden) and the conservatory of Mrs. Higgins (a deliciously no-nonsense Richenda Carey) — and the handsomely book-lined, two-story house of Professor Higgins (Dominic West).
The crucial ease evident in the transformations is also apparent throughout the company — all overcooked “cock-er-nee” accents have been banished — but most particularly in West’s tuner debut as Higgins.
Instead of the common practice of overdosing on the curmudgeonly side of Higgins by casting someone old enough to be Eliza’s grandfather, the casting of a good-looking 43-year-old makes his relationship with Eliza far more credible.
West not only appears as a still-eligible bachelor, he reveals far more of a singing voice than is traditional, which adds to the relaxation of his performance. That ease gives him a winning confidence that then allows his dismissal of all emotions (except blinkered male ones) to be a more interesting self-delusion than the crusty misogyny that can stalk the role.
Evans also issues a corrective to another casting misstep. Armed with an honest-to-God true tenor voice, Louis Maskell sings his way into audience’s hearts as suitor Freddy Eynsford-Hill. But Evans also ensures we understand that Freddy’s role isn’t small because Alan Jay Lerner couldn’t be bothered writing him in more depth but because Freddy is a twit. With Freddy therefore less attractive, Eliza’s hankering for the challenge of Higgins makes far more sense.
Thanks to the cast’s vocal command — courtesy of musical director Nigel Lilley, who, armed with Simon Baker’s crisp sound design, also conjures detailed playing from the 12-piece band — the elisions from speech into song are all but invisible. Acting never stops for “a number.”
That’s also the result of the meshing of Tim Mitchell’s lighting plot and Alistair David’s terrific choreography. “My Fair Lady” is scarcely a dance show, but there are key ensemble numbers that welcome major injections of energy. David goes for amusing naturalism overdrive in “I Could Have Danced All Night” — he even wheels on a bath and soaks Eliza in bubbles — but then goes for broke with an extended “Get Me to the Church on Time.” Weaving rhythmic changes, multiple props and a pile-up of the set into a whirligig of excitement that never drops energy, he builds and builds the number until, on the final chord, the company hits the deck with exhaustion to a roar of approval from the audience.
None of which would be half as effective were the show not built around such an ideal Eliza. Having recently shone in misbegotten stagings of “Pippin” and “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” Carly Bawden here comes into her own. She’s got an ideal vocal range, as fully evidenced in a zinging “Show Me,” but from the moment she sings “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly,” you see not a soprano singing but a character wishing and hoping. And, fascinatingly, she allows Eliza’s roots to show even past the transformation, the latter achieved in a “Rain in Spain” in which every emotion between her, Higgins and Anthony Calf’s perfectly tender but unthinking Pickering is ideally placed.
Evans’ production is scheduled to run only until Jan. 26. It might be early for the show to play London — Trevor Nunn’s handsome but heavy-handed production closed in 2003 — but it would be a crying shame if Evans’ production didn’t travel from its lucky Sheffield home.