They’ve bleedin’ done it. That sentence would never be condoned by Jonathan Pryce’s Henry Higgins, a fierce proponent of the full glories of the English language who must equip himself for the far less readily learned discourse that accompanies feeling. But the happy news emanating from the Royal National Theater’s new “My Fair Lady” is that it speaks equally to the savvy showmanship required of musicals and to the substance — the matters, shall we say, not of the head but of the heart — that underpins this one.
Should the National be doing such shows, especially with a commercial co-producer such as Cameron Mackintosh, who has wasted no time in announcing a West End transfer to Drury Lane’s Theater Royal in July? The answer is evident in a production from Trevor Nunn that honors one of the most beloved of all scores while offering fresh insights, large and small, into a class-bound society that has shifted direction in the decades since Lerner and Loewe adapted Shaw’s “Pygmalion.” (Nowadays, Londoners aspire to the downwardly mobile: Posh accents aren’t good for one’s “street cred.”)
Of the productions of “My Fair Lady” I have seen over time (the 1956 original not among them), some have been better sung and others more ceaselessly lavish. But just as Nunn’s “Oklahoma!” several years ago was revisionist in no way beyond merely plumbing the truth of the tale, so, too, does his “My Fair Lady” go some way toward reinventing the material by simply investigating it fully: Just when you think you’ve grown accustomed to its face, a time-tested musical comes to newly giddy and — when necessary — poignant life.
Credit, to start with, a startlingly fresh Higgins from Pryce, who is the somewhat self-effacing anchor of a production that has from its inception risked being sidelined as the Martine McCutcheon show, given relentless British press interest in the revival’s 24-year-old star. A onetime East Ender who has segued to a successful pop career (and already written her autobiography), McCutcheon is reportedly the first Eliza to hail from the same territory (with its concomitant vowel sounds) as the Cockney flower girl herself. Whereas Julie Andrews and Audrey Hepburn in the same role were able to mature into their own voices, McCutcheon’s ascent up the social ladder as Eliza marks a shift away from her natural speech, which may explain why the opening night at times seemed to boast more phoneticians in the audience than even Higgins and Col. Pickering (Nicholas le Prevost) might have thought possible.
How is she? In a word, charming, which counts for a lot, since McCutcheon possesses that likability factor that coaching and drama school cannot buy. Moments arise when one might wish for greater breath control and vocal support (on “Show Me”) and for the acting chops to supplant the canned grin that accompanies “I Could Have Danced All Night.” For the most part, however, she is so insistently winning that she leaves the audience as smitten as Freddy Eynsford-Hill (Mark Umbers). Whether straying from the accepted topics at Ascot — chronicling Eliza’s doomed, gin-soaked family, McCutcheon draws the biggest laughs of the night — or mournfully reprising “Just You Wait,” McCutcheon constitutes a find of a certain sort, and one has to smile when she suspiciously declines Higgins’ initial offers of chocolate like a wary young woman who has been warned about date rape.
The perf would amount to a lot less in less-supportive circumstances. The tremendous ensemble deserves equal attention. Umbers, for instance, is that rare Freddy who actually seems like a worthy competitor to Higgins, and the actor brings down the house with “On the Street Where You Live,” his lush baritone the production’s single most notable vocal feat. Returning to the song later in act two, he makes a hilariously lovesick lush, a dizzy suitor soaring in his affections “seven stories high” (so what — in a rare Alan Jay Lerner misstep — if “stories” is a word the British never use) even as his body is splayed drunkenly across Wimpole Street. (One benefit of Umbers’ allure: When Higgins snaps in disbelief, “Marry Freddy?,” he is responding out of jealousy, not condescension.)
As Pickering, a commendably unbumptious le Prevost can invest a word like “dashed” with multiple meanings, all of them amplifying the matey-ness with Higgins that Eliza’s potentially permanent presence exists to erode. It’s not just that le Prevost hints at a rather kinky Pickering — a cultivated man who knows more perhaps than he should about ladies’ apparel — but that he, without articulating it, can see full well the cultural limbo that Eliza has grown to inhabit. The fact is that, under Higgins’ tutelage, she has changed, which means that Higgins, like it or not, will have to change, too — not easy among Britain’s chappish upper classes.
That’s where Pryce comes into his own, his casual, occasionally rather camp presence at the opposite end of the spectrum from Rex Harrison’s famously brisk, barking command. Guided, one assumes, by Nunn, there’s more than a touch of “The Taming of the Shrew” to Higgins’ battle of wills with Eliza, who, in turn, resists being called “baggage” but won’t be recognized by her master as anything resembling a human being. Singing the numbers in a way Harrison never could, Pryce uses his gentle vibrato to good effect on “I’m an Ordinary Man,” the number pitched not far from a breakdown. His self-protection cracking, the actor later delivers an unusually revealing “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face,” stopping flower sellers on the street in his quest for the Eliza that, he fears, is now lost forever to him. (It doesn’t help that his mother — Caroline Blakiston’s coolly elegant Mrs. Higgins — has clearly taken Eliza’s side. With Dennis Waterman’s Alfred P. Doolittle hinting that he has been no stranger in his life to violence, the production insinuates at the gulf between parents and children that may be the musical’s real divide.)
It takes a certain visual elan to allow a show like this to breathe so fully, and Anthony Ward’s design is delightfully fluid and airy, with Covent Garden’s Floral Hall its governing leitmotif. This designer’s streamlined look by now is well-known (he did the Nunn “Oklahoma!”), and more old-fashioned theatergoers may miss an absence of stuff. (Audience members will far more reasonably lament the barely passable sound design and William David Brohn’s surprisingly tinny orchestrations.) But Ward can lay on the clutter when he needs to — Higgins’ study depicts a sea of books stacked alongside a perfectionist’s linguistic tricks of the trade — while lending a cinematic flow to sequences that include a striking “black Ascot” sequence that accords with a production set during 1910, the year of Edward VII’s death.
The Ascot scene, too, brings out the best in choreographer Matthew Bourne, whose approach earlier in the show to “With a Little Bit of Luck” resorts a bit too much to a percussive “knees-up,” as the Brits say, that suggests “Stomp” by way of Susan Stroman. But Bourne’s flair for satiric elegance has always embraced society’s swells (cf. “Swan Lake”), and so it does during an “Ascot Gavotte” in which the eye doesn’t know where to look first — at the men high-stepping a stylized pas de cheval or at Ward’s riotous galaxy of headgear. It’s not the first time during this “My Fair Lady” that you are swept along, lost in thrall to a show you think you knew, only to see preconceptions stripped away in a production that couldn’t be more thrillingly new.