REVIEW: A smashing, feminist “My Fair Lady” starring Lauren Ambrose

REVIEW: A smashing, feminist “My Fair Lady” starring Lauren Ambrose

It’s been a long tease, but one well worth the wait.  In 2011, Lauren Ambrose (“Six Feet Under”) was cast to star as Fanny Brice in the first Broadway revival of 1964’s “Funny Girl”—the role that made Barbra Streisand the “greatest star”.  When funding fell apart, the production was scrapped

Now, seven years later, Ms. Ambrose stars as Eliza Doolittle in Lincoln Center Theater’s grand new production of Lerner and Loewe’s “My Fair Lady”, which joyously opened tonight at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre under the helm of director Bartlett Sher, best known for his stunning Lincoln Center revivals of “South Pacific” (2008) and “The King and I” (2015), in addition to last season’s hit play “Oslo”.

At age 40, Ms. Ambrose was not the obvious choice to play an 18 year-old character.  “My Fair Lady” also marks her first musical since playing Ado Annie in her high school’s production of “Oklahoma!”, but Mr. Sher believed she could do it, telling the New York Times: “[t]here is no better actress working in New York right now”.  And boy is he right.  Stepping into a beloved role created by Julie Andrews on stage (1956) and iconically portrayed by Audrey Hepburn on film (1964) is no easy task.  Ms. Ambrose more than rises to the occasion, fearlessly carving out her own Eliza, and it’s both one for the ages and one perfectly fit for these times.

As a down-on-her-luck Covent Garden flower girl in 1913 London, Ms. Ambrose’s Eliza begins the play outlandishly gruff and feral, her face wincing and contorting with all the attendant subtlety of a silent film actor, the honk of her whine piercing and jolt of her cockney dialect bracing.  Highly expressive—both outsized and histrionic—she’s described by elegant but first rate jerk linguistics Professor Henry Higgins (Harry Hadden-Paton, “Downton Abbey”, “The Crown”) as a “barbarous wretch” and “guttersnipe”.

The payoff for this setup comes in the total transformation we witness by the end of act one.  Under Higgins’ belittling and dehumanizing hand, cajoled via gentlemanly bet with Colonel Pickering (Allan Corduner), Eliza emerges an elegant and statuesque beauty, smoothly (for the most part) code-switching her way into high society. 

A winning point of this blatantly feminist production is that Henry Higgins does not transform Eliza Doolittle so much as reveal who she is.  As such, a performance that may appear cartoonish at first slyly shifts as Eliza becomes a different, more refined version of the woman she always was: smart, capable, and strong.  Of course this is all embedded in the plot and text, but Ms. Ambrose performs the role with a range and resonance that feels fresh for a 62 year-old musical based on George Bernard Shaw’s 105 year-old play “Pygmalion”, itself based on Greek mythology thousands of years old.

While her lovely and strong voice is crisp and pleasant, if a bit muted, scene work is where Ms. Ambrose shines brightest.  And she couldn’t ask for a better partner than Mr. Hadden-Paton.  The text of “My Fair Lady” unavoidably paints Professor Higgins as a cruelly apathetic and sexist prig.  Rightly recognizing how audiences in 2018 would respond to the character, Mr. Sher no doubt selected Mr. Hadden-Paton—at age 37 much younger than typical for the role, younger than his Eliza!—because of his ability to also be simultaneously charming and comical, much like a younger John Lithgow.  Less bully, more petulant child.  The pair work brilliantly together, and it is a joy to hear Henry Higgins’ patter songs melodiously sung for once.

Indeed, Lerner and Loewe’s stellar score (“I Could Have Danced All Night” is a perfect earworm) sounds magnificent in the hands of musical director Ted Sperling and his 29 piece orchestra performing the original 1956 orchestrations.  Upon revisit, the score is also amazingly contemporary in its plot-driven propulsion and in the specificity of motif and theme crafted for each character.  The finesse with which songs organically interpolate remains impressive, as does the abounding wit of Alan Jay Lerner’s lyrics and book.

There is an old Woody Allen joke about Cole Porter obtaining the rights to “My Fair Lady” so he could remove the songs and turn it back to “Pygmalion”; while funny, the punchline taps into one consistent minority critique over the years, voiced by none other than Stephen Sondheim, that this play-to-musical adaption was wholly unnecessary: “They painted the lily.  They painted it really well, but it’s painted.”  Rodgers and Hammerstein tried to adapt “Pygmalion” but abandoned the project, with Oscar Hammerstein reporting: “it can’t be done.” 

Lerner and Loewe were able to musicalize the story by stepping beyond Professor Higgins’ study to create the non-patter musical moments that more easily resemble traditional musical comedy songs.  Regardless of where you might fall in this debate (lilies and all!), there is no denying that the score is quite brilliantly crafted and, like the greatest musicals, the unsung hero (literally) is the book.  While act two drags, Lerner’s script for “My Fair Lady”, which borrows heavily from Shaw’s original text, stands as one of the finest in the canon because it is rich in texture, which gives each new production so much to explore.  

For his part, Mr. Sher promised to “crack” this classic musical, responding, most immediately, to the #metoo moment in which it arrives.  Despite the text and central plot conceit (erudite older man molds poor unrefined younger woman), the power in this “My Fair Lady” clearly belongs to the women: Eliza, Mrs. Higgins—played by a regal Diana Rigg—and even the Queen of Transylvania in her cameo bit.  Eliza’s suitor, Freddy (Jordan Donica), is nothing more than a silly admirer—though he sings “On the Street Where You Live” with soaring beauty. 

At every turn, Mr. Sher has, without changing a word, changed dynamics, casting light on the absurdity of the male characters’ 19th century vestigial sexist, nationalist, and colonialist views, while emphasizing the integrity and intrinsic strength of its female characters.  Henry Higgins is still a misogynist, but the illusion of his power is revealed for what it is—an antique, crumbling before our eyes.

Mr. Sher’s feminist gestures are both subtle and grand.  Without further comment, a string of suffragettes crosses the stage during a public square scene in act one, while at the musical’s close [major spoiler alert], instead of Eliza begrudgingly fetching Henry’s slippers at his barking command, he whimpers the request and she, after a moment of sizing him up, confidently walks directly off the stage ala Ibsen’s Nora, and breaks the fourth wall, exiting the auditorium through the aisle.  For purists, the cracking of that ending might be too much, but in 2018 it feels right.  And it also honors Shaw’s original text, which ends not in reconciliation, as the musical typically suggests, but with Eliza’s departure.

While Mr. Sher’s vision plays out beautifully in intimate scenes, particularly in Henry’s study, those moments crash up against an unfortunately discordant production design.  The Vivian Beaumont offers the only true thrust stage on Broadway, jutting out into the audience that wraps around it in semi-circle, affording close proximity to performers, but also challenging sight lines for directors and designers not thinking holistically. 

The centerpiece of the stylistically uneven sets by Michael Yeargen is Henry Higgins’ towering, two story townhouse on Wimpole Street, which revolves to reveal multiple rooms, all decked out in exquisite detail.  It slides forward from the depths of the Beaumont when called for, earning applause on its own, but otherwise, the stage is mostly bare, with the occasional representational backdrop or mobile.

Surprising for a director who has worked so often in this space before, Mr. Sher is not thoughtful about how audience members sitting house left and right might view both the sets and the action within them.  I sat house right, rendering nearly all set pieces offering plays on perspective completely inert; likewise, because of the size of the sliding townhouse set, and the V-shape of the study where most action occurs, I saw a lot of backs and not nearly enough faces.  These are avoidable blocking and design problems that are baffling to encounter at this professional level, especially since—last I checked—the ticket prices remain the same across the entire span of the orchestra level.  If you go, insist on sitting center.

That said, so many moments of this production of one of the greatest musicals ever written are utterly glorious, including the “Ascot Gavotte”—a brilliant satire of English stoicism on display at a horse race—and the fun act two non sequitur “Get Me to the Church on Time”, sung by Eliza’s father, Alfred P. Doolittle, played by the ever-reliable Norbert Leo Butz.  Choreographer Christopher Gattelli (“Newsies”) gives these numbers, and all he touches, abundant life.  But “My Fair Lady” is not about chorus numbers, it’s about Eliza and Henry, and fortunately, Ms. Ambrose and Mr. Hadden-Paton more than fit the bill with their smashing, revolutionary performances.

The 2017-2018 Broadway season, especially weak in volume of musical revivals,  comes to a close this month, just in time for “Carousel” and “My Fair Lady”—opening a week apart—to provide a much needed flash of Golden Age greatness.  These musicals are important because they inform everything that came after them, and upon revisit, prove their sturdy construction and merit as classics for each new generation to enjoy.

Bottom Line: Lincoln Center Theater delivers a grand, first rate, feminist revival of Lerner and Loewe’s classic musical, “My Fair Lady”.  Perfectly keyed to this moment while honoring the greatness of its text and score, director Bartlett Sher hits another home run, and Lauren Ambrose and Harry Hadden-Paton give smashing, revolutionary performances as Eliza Doolittle and Professor Higgins.  A great revival of a great musical to end the season on a high note.

____________
My Fair Lady
Lincoln Center Theater
at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre
150 West 65th Street
New York, NY  10023

Running Time: 2 hours, 55 minutes (one intermission)
Opening Night: April 19, 2018
Final Performance: open ended
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