If you’ve got it, flaunt it. The splendid Beaumont stage at Lincoln Center was made for great classic musicals like Lerner and Loewe’s “My Fair Lady,” and helmer Bartlett Sher was born to stage them. This jubilant revival is meticulously mounted and entirely welcome – despite the eccentric casting choice of Lauren Ambrose as Eliza Doolittle.
Ambrose, a dramatic actress noted for her style and intelligence in shows like “Awake and Sing!” and “Exit the King” (not to mention her comic flair in “Six Feet Under”), does not leap to mind as the perfect Eliza. She doesn’t even leap to mind as the okay Eliza. It’s a triumph of acting that this non-singer manages to sing like a trouper. But the strain shows.
It comes as a happy shock to be reminded of what a great show this is. The Pygmalion story (lifted from George Bernard Shaw, via the Pascal film) about romantic transformation is as old and durable as a fairy tale. Henry Higgins (the ever-so handsome – and authentically British – Harry Hadden-Paton) is the magician, and Eliza, the dirty little guttersnipe he encounters selling flowers at Covent Garden, is the princess whose hidden beauty he uncovers, cultivates, and eventually falls in love with. The Ascot races and the Embassy ball are two of the trials the heroine must overcome before she can take her rightful place in society and in Higgins’ arms.
The clarity of speech is a joy in itself. When Higgins pronounces Eliza “so delicious low,” the consonants register with a snap. “The Rain in Spain,” in which Eliza discovers the joy of finding her own speaking voice, deserves to stop the show. And when Higgins speaks with real passion of “the majesty, the grandeur of the English language,” you can hear the shiver of true love in his voice.
As Lincoln Center productions go, this one, under Sher’s scrupulous direction, is among the more spectacular. Michael Yeargan’s sets, from the flower market at Covent Garden to Higgins’ magnificent library with its overstuffed bookshelves and spiral staircase, are as rich and luscious as wedding cakes. Catherine Zuber’s costumes, from Higgins’ paisley smoking jacket to Eliza’s column gown for the Embassy ball, have true elegance. (What a joy to watch Diana Rigg, a vision in lady-like lavender, entering her private box at Ascot with all sails flying.) The scenes are beautifully composed and Donald Holder’s warm lighting adds a magical glow to each one.
There are things that could have been better managed. Norbert Leo Butz’s Alfred P. Doolittle, who would happily sell his daughter to a stranger for five pounds, is a lovable scamp. (“I’m one of the undeserving poor,” he cackles.) But he’s still a bit over the top. And Jordan Donica’s gentlemanly Freddy, whose solo “On the Street Where You Live” is as pure as birdsong, could have been less of a twit. But we’re nit-picking here. With Lerner and Loewe’s soaring score and Sher’s respectful staging, a beloved show comes alive in all its glory to end the theater season on a high.
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