Chicago Theatre Review
As Loverly as It Gets
My Fair Lady – Lyric Opera
Any production of Lerner and Loewe’s classic is always a treat. It’s a textbook example of the perfect book musical, based upon George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion” and featuring a sumptuous score that includes beautiful ballads (“On the Street Where You Live”), joyful music hall melodies (“With a Little Bit of Luck”) and insightful character recitatives (“I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face”), all of which have become standards. It’s a throwback to that glorious time when musicals were an evening’s event—fun, stylish and told in a compelling story that featured songs that would send the audience out of the theatre humming. Following several seasons of Rodgers and Hammerstein classics, the Lyric continues their annual Broadway series with another sublime musical from the Golden Age. The question is, does this new production measure up?
Indeed it does! To begin with, for theatre aficionados it’s always exciting to experience such a faithful production of this 1956 musical. In this single respect the show succeeds magnificently. In addition, director Fredj stages his production with zealous joy, but also with grace and sharp focus, And watching Eliza, especially as she realizes, during “The Rain in Spain,” that she’s attracted to Higgins, is one of the many sublime moments of this production. We empathize with this young woman as she stands in the shadows, watching Pickering, Higgins and his household staff gloating over the professor’s success at the ball. However, despite the ensemble’s glorious rendition of “You Did It,” this director subtly directs our attention toward Eliza, grievously ignored by everyone, despite the fact that it was her own hard work and perseverance that made this triumph possible. There are many such excellent moments throughout this finely directed production.
The musical ebbs and flows exquisitely, thanks to the very stylish and spirited choreography by Lynne Page. Her music hall style production numbers for Doolittle and his drinking buddies, particularly “With a Little Bit of Luck,” contrasts beautifully with the elegant “Embassy Waltz.” There’s a grandly stylized “Ascot Gavotte,” as well as the simplicity of synchronized movement found in “The Servants’ Chorus.” Every choreographed moment is so loverly, thanks to this talented choreographic master. Superbly sung, acted and danced, this musical is just as polished and perfect as any Broadway, West End or professional touring revival.
Technically the production also sings. The much-celebrated designer Anthony Powell has outdone himself, providing a dazzling array of 285 separate colorful period costumes, meticulously updating the musical to 1950, when King George was still on the throne. Wigmaster and makeup designer Sarah Hatten helps complete the look of the times. Tim Hatley has designed a beautiful, finely detailed and flawless series of massive stage settings that are stunning, cultured and clever. Framed by a pair of massive, Corinthian columns, Hatley’s off-white palette, which mirrors the original French production, is present throughout his work, not only giving focus to the cast but to Powell’s gorgeous costumes. Robert Carsen and Giuseppe Di Iorio make certain that everything shines and sparkles under their excellent lighting design. Together they’ve captured so many subtleties in illumination, from a snowy evening outside Covent Garden to the brilliance of the Embassy Ball; from a sunny Spring afternoon at the Ascot to the early morning radiance of “Get Me to the Church on Time.” Carsen and Di Iorio’s illumination is flawless.
Shaw wrote an unconventional love story between two headstrong people. Professor Henry Higgins promises Eliza Doolittle that she will be able to sell flowers in a shop, instead of on the streets, if she learns to speak proper English. He accepts Pickering’s bet to pass her off as royalty at the Embassy Ball. However, between English and etiquette lessons, Eliza and Henry become attracted to each other. Being the staunchly confirmed bachelor that he is, however, Higgins denies to himself that he harbors any feelings for his lovely, beguiling student.
Lisa O’Hare’s classy, sassy Eliza is the essence of this musical. In her we see a working class caterpillar gradually evolving into a beautifully cultured butterfly. Ms. O’Hare brings elegance, energy and perfect pitch to her songs, a spot-on command of two completely different British dialects and an expressive face that says everything not spoken. Trained in opera, Ms. O’Hare was recently seen on Broadway in “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder.” She’s also toured the country as Eliza Doolittle and played Mary Poppins in Australia and the U.K. Some of her finest moments in this production include a winsome, yet pensive “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly,” a girlishly jubilant “I Could’ve Danced All Night” and the fiery frustration of “Show Me.” But perhaps Ms. O’Hare’s finest moment comes as she descends the staircase to Higgins’ study, looking radiant in her Embassy Ballgown. And one of the finest qualities in Lisa O’Hare’s performance is her truthfulness. Her Eliza grows from a self-doubting Cockney flower girl into an admirable, strongly independent young woman.
Richard E. Grant’s Henry Higgins is determined, a bit pompous, silver-tongued and quite self-assured at the beginning of the play, very much the character that G.B. Shaw created in “Pygmalion.” As we observe Higgins in his element, Grant shows us a man who relishes his work. He matches Ms. O’Hare’s youthful glee throughout, but for different reasons. By the end of the musical, Higgins, in Mr. Grant’s capable hands, is a man who’s learned much from his pupil and acquired a good deal of humility. He’s a scholar who finally recognizes that he’s found, in Eliza Doolittle, a woman who’s every inch his equal. Initially audiences may question the chemistry that eventually draws these two stubborn personalities together, but it’s there from the start. The flower simply needed time to bloom. Near the musical’s finale, Eliza and Henry finally confront each other as equals in his mother’s home. There Grant skillfully shows us what beats inside this chauvinistic man. We see a Higgins revealing his hidden vulnerability as he admits that he’s “Grown Accustomed to Her Face.” As a result, this final scene is the perfect conclusion to Shaw’s story about the creator who falls in love his creation.
The supporting cast is uniformly excellent. Nicholas Le Prevost’s grandfatherly, very British and dryly humorous Colonel Pickering is a joy, as is Helen Carey’s delightfully droll, wise and witty Mrs. Higgins. Another Tony-nominated star of Broadway’s “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder,” boyishly handsome Bryce Pinkham plays Eliza’s verbose young love interest, Freddy. He fills the house with his gorgeous and flawless rendition of “On the Street Where You Live.” Larger-than-life Donald Maxwell makes a wily, fast-talking Alfred P. Doolittle. He’s supported by his two mirthful cronies, skillfully played by Chicago talents Jackson Evans and James Romney. Other Windy City talents include the terrific Cindy Gold, providing a calm, matronly humanity to her formidable housekeeper, Mrs. Pearce, and Michael Joseph Mitchell, bombastic and conniving, as Higgins’ arrogant and smarmy Hungarian adversary, Zoltan Karpathy.
Every single member of this talented 40-member ensemble brings an impressive, harmonious trained voice that fills out the production. Even more wonderful is how the entire company demonstrates a talent for dance. One melodic highlight early in the show is the beautiful Cockney Quartet who support Eliza, comprised of Hoss Brock, Peter Morgan, Joe Shadday and Will Skrip.
Luckily for Chicago this exquisite production, which musically and dramatically has so much to recommend it, is playing at the Lyric for several weeks. Olivier Fredj, his support team and large, gifted cast have created an enchanting evening of theatre that’s true to original 1956 Broadway production. It will transport audiences back to the elegance and innocence of London during the 1950’s. As gorgeous-sounding as Lerner and Loewe’s lavish, Tony Award-winning musical score is, Shaw’s original play truly shines forth. This new Broadway caliber production is guaranteed to make theatergoers want to “dance all night.”
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented April 28-May 21 by the Lyric Opera, 20 N. Wacker Drive, Chicago.
Tickets are available in person at the Lyric Opera box office, by calling them at 312-332-2244 or by going to www.lyricopera.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.