If the original production made "My Fair Lady" seem the Rolls-Royce of American musicals, this revival makes it a Yugo. It looks serviceable, it gets you where you want to go and it has proper ideological underpinnings.
At first, the inspiration for director Howard ("Les Liaisons Dangereuses") Davies' production seems to be Magritte, as if Shaw's hardheaded comedy about the British class system had anything to do with the Belgian artist's juxtapositions of the homely and the transcendent.
During the overture, we see a scrim with the back of Henry Higgins' trademark soft tweed hat contemplating a Magritte-like sky full of Eliza Doolittle's straw hats. Later, in the Ascot scene, the stuffy aristocrats watch the races as they're suspended in midair, a droll if meaningless sight.
Apart from these references to Magritte, this is a no-frills "My Fair Lady." Visual delight is kept to a minimum.
It is, of course, admirable that Davies and designer Ralph Koltai have tried to rethink the show. Most revivals are pale imitations of the opulent original. But the overall visual tone is so Spartan it jars with the material. (Though many of Patricia Zipprodt's costumes are awash in color, the gowns for the Embassy Ball have a muted quality, as if Davies wanted to point up the dullness of these events rather than give us what should be a Cinderella moment.)
Often, the direction seems more apt for "Hellzapoppin" than "My Fair Lady." When Higgins teaches Eliza how to speak, she lies back in a barber's chair, which he tools around the stage, sometimes lying astride her, as if this were a Marx Brothers picture.
Davies' direction coarsens even material straight from Shaw, like Mrs. Higgins' tea party. Was this his way of dealing with audiences who have come largely to see Richard Chamberlain? If so, it's insulting to them and him.
As it happens, Chamberlain makes a very debonair Higgins. His ever-youthful good looks may not be really right for a cranky phonetics professor, but he plays Higgins with dash, savvy humor and a surprisingly rich singing voice.
As Eliza, Melissa Errico has a very beautiful voice. But Davies' acrobatic, heavy-handed direction never lets her show Eliza's transformation from a girl of the gutter to a mature, sensitive woman.
Paxton Whitehead is expectedly superb as Pickering, Dolores Sutton extremely funny as Higgins' mother and Robert Sella winning as Freddy. But I have never seen a less charming Doolittle than Julian Holloway (son of Stanley, who originated the role).
Jack Lee's conducting often lets the singers disregard the beat, which may be why the ladies next to me were convinced the score was recorded.
The large chorus sounds marvelous. In some ways, the strongest moment of the evening is Donald Saddler's choreography for "Get Me to Church on Time," a burst of irrepressible energy.
When all is said and done, however, "My Fair Lady" is indestructible. Its effervescent score and the resilient dialogue entertain in spite of all efforts to "improve" them.
Time cannot wither nor custom stale George Bernard Shaw's Cinderella story of a flower-girl who goes to a ball and becomes a princess of the world. Though the hero rightly steals the lead role, Shaw's squashed-cabbage leaf of a heroine is immortal - especially when set to music.
Still, there was something markedly new about the enormously enjoyable revival of "My Fair Lady," starring Richard Chamberlain in the leading role's adroit mix of Henry Higgins and Rex Harrison, which opened, as irresistible as ever, last night at the Virginia Theater. So we were unaccustomed to its face.
Since the now-classic Lerner and Loewe musical opened in 1956, the physical production, with its Oliver Smith scenery and Cecil Beaton costumes - both magnificent - has remained rock-steady. No more.
Following the recent examples of the entirely re-worked "Guys and Dolls," and "She Loves Me," this new "Fair Lady" really is new, with a fresh-minted staging by Howard Davies and startlingly, even radically, different scenery by Ralph Koltai.
The British director - hot from a staging of Shaw's original play, "Pygmalion," for London's National Theater, where he is an associate director - and the British designer have conspired to rethink this "Fair Lady" with an oddly iconoclastic concept involving Shaw's views on class and feminism, with design ideas as varied as Meyerhold's constructivism and Magritte's surrealistic whimsy.
Strange - the always brilliant Davies staged "Pygmalion" for the National as if it were a musical and has now staged "My Fair Lady" as if it were a play.
It looks odd, and the effortless balance of the original has frankly been lost. A classic is essentially timeless, and, of course, "My Fair Lady" did need a new generational look, but needed one intrinsically much more in keeping with the champagne sparkle of Frederick Loewe's Viennese music and Alan Jay Lerner's Shavian lyrics.
Of course, any musical that can survive George Cukor's egregious movie version must be pretty much fireproof, and unlike that awful film, Davies' approach is anything but pedestrian.
Frequently, the light-fingered dexterity of his details - often helped by Donald Saddler's cheery, music-hally choreography - provides welcome contrast to the heavy-handed concept.
And the performances - all neatly and aptly rejigged by Davies - are largely a joy. A piquant Melissa Errico makes a nicely pert, beautifully sung Eliza, while the admirably boisterous Julian Holloway, as Eliza's dustman father, is understandably very like his illustrious father, Stanley, who originated the role.
On the other hand, Paxton Whitehead is charmingly like no one but his blithering self as Col. Pickering. And for the rest, Richard Chamberlain takes the show on his shoulders and runs with it.
Like Harrison and Ian Richardson before him, Chamberlain is significantly a Higgins one would welcome as much in Shaw's play as in the musical. Although vocally he often sounds very Harrisonian, his interpretation, selfish, brusque yet romantically charming, proves very much his own.
It is a "loverly" performance and while wittily keeping Shaw in focus, allows this still bewitching show to fly on the wings of Lerner and Loewe's songs. So everyone and everything - except the scenery - can gloriously dance all night.
Even at this late date it would be folly to compete with the original 1956 production of "My Fair Lady," probably the perfect expression of the perfect musical. Wisely, the people behind the latest incarnation of Lerner and Loewe's masterpiece, which stars Richard Chamberlain and a beguiling Melissa Errico, haven't tried.
One look at Professor Higgins's study will tell you that. There, looming over the grand piano, is a gigantic phrenological head, while the good professor's recording equipment appears to have been borrowed from Dr. Frankenstein's laboratory. If the musical tells a Cinderella story about a Cockney flower girl who goes to the ball and is proclaimed a princess, it is also the account of a cold, calculating experiment in social engineering that threatens to run amok. By underscoring some of the darker implications of the fable, the show that opened last night at the Virginia Theater wants to be a brave new "My Fair Lady." To a certain degree it succeeds.
You'd do best, however, to lay aside any expectations of the breath-stopping opulence that the team of Moss Hart, Oliver Smith and Cecil Beaton lavished on the original. A dollar went a lot farther back then, and this production, which has been touring the country for nearly eight months, was put together on a relatively modest budget of $3 million. As designed by Ralph Koltai, an associate artist of the Royal Shakespeare Company -- with unbilled assistance from the American designer Heidi Landesman -- the sets evoke the surrealistic world of the Belgian painter Magritte far more than they do the fussy chic of Edwardian England.
This is not necessarily a bad idea. In the "Ascot Gavotte," the production's incontestable high point, it proves, in fact, a very good idea. Some of the lockjawed aristocrats who are gathering for a day at the races stroll in from the wings. But others, standing on swings, descend out of a cloud-flecked sky and remain suspended in the azure throughout the scene. They make for an arresting picture, these contented patricians, oh so handsomely attired by Patricia Zipprodt, as they gaze superciliously at the sights below. The unorthodox staging is also an inspired expression of the class distinctions and social snobberies that lurk at the heart of "My Fair Lady."
Or consider the production's take on "I Could Have Danced All Night," which a lightheaded Eliza Doolittle sings after mastering Higgins's vocal exercises and winning his approval. The number unfolds against a deep-blue evening sky this time. A solitary window hangs in the darkness. Below is Eliza's bed, but Eliza, wrapped in flannel bunting and bows, is not yet ready to settle down. As Ms. Errico delivers the exultant song, she does a backward somersault on the mattress, dives under the covers, pops right back out again, performs a balancing act on the headboard and generally carries on like a kid on Christmas Eve.
The actress is irrepressible, gawky and altogether endearing. Anyone playing Eliza, of course, can expect to be measured against Julie Andrews. Ms. Errico does not make so fine a fair lady, perhaps. But then I'm not sure Ms. Andrews was ever quite this frisky.
Mr. Chamberlain is just as likely to overturn a lot of your preconceived notions. At 58, he retains the dashing profile he first exhibited on television more than 30 years ago as Dr. Kildare, and certainly cuts a more conventionally romantic figure in Higgins's rumpled tweeds than Rex Harrison ever did. Here's the surprise: Mr. Chamberlain has a lively intelligence, a sporting sense of humor and a touch or two of the leprechaun's mischievousness. Following tradition, he treats his musical numbers as heightened talk, and while his diction may not be Harrison's, it has nothing to apologize for. Only in "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face," Higgins's final monologue and wrestling match with himself, do you miss the sheer breadth (and sheer breath) that his celebrated predecessor brought to the part.
The production has been shaped by the British director Howard Davies, best known on these shores for his 1987 mounting of "Les Liaisons Dangereuses," also a work about manipulators in a class-conscious society and those who submit to their will. "My Fair Lady" is a vastly cheerier piece, but Mrs. Higgins (Dolores Sutton), Henry's unflappable mother, knows what's going on just the same. "You're a pretty pair of babies, playing with your live doll," she notes dismissively of her son and his addled collaborator, Colonel Pickering (Paxton Whitehead). Higgins may claim he's only reforming Eliza's vowels and clipping her consonants, but in doing so he renders her unfit for anything but a life of passive gentility. There are some disquieting realities in "My Fair Lady" -- still more in Shaw's "Pygmalion," on which it is based -- and Mr. Davies would like to coax them into the foreground.
You'll notice, for example, that the rowdies hoisting their tankards and bellowing "With a Little Bit of Luck" in the first act do so in front of a backdrop that depicts a landscape of smoky factories in the colors of a two-day-old bruise. When Higgins gets around to the serious business of phonetics lessons, he claps Eliza in a dentist's chair, tips her backward and then bears down on her like a diabolical doctor yanking molars. Even the ballroom, where Eliza enjoys her grandest hour, has a dreamlike eeriness, opening as it does on another mysterious blue vista.
About half of the time, Mr. Davies is taking "My Fair Lady" in such an innovative direction that one wishes he had carried his vision through to the end. At some point, however, the brakes were obviously slammed on, and more commercial considerations intervened. How else to account for those recurring spells in which the production dutifully minds its musical-comedy manners and behaves in all the traditionally high-spirited ways? Julian Holloway, playing Alfred P. Doolittle (the role created by his father, Stanley), is quite content to follow in the paternal footsteps without adding anything new. "Get Me to the Church on Time," the big second-act whoop-de-do, is all rambunctiousness and giddy squeals. In the radical context that Mr. Davies has established elsewhere, though, it signifies nothing so much as Broadway business as usual. Somehow, that doesn't seem to have been the initial goal of this project.
Few would doubt that "My Fair Lady" is a masterpiece. Virtually every song in Frederick Loewe's score is soaringly right. As a book writer and lyricist, Alan Jay Lerner had never attained such literate heights before, and he wouldn't after. The nagging question here is: How do you treat a masterpiece? Reverently or audaciously? Do we value "My Fair Lady" for what we already know about it? Or do we plumb it for the surprises that all masterpieces contain? This production does a little of both.
After suggesting that Higgins's experiment has its pernicious aspect, Mr. Davies leaves us with an image of the starchy professor and his spunky student happily reconciled. She is pushing his hat down over his eyes. He pulls her into his lap. They're laughing. The playful encounter definitely says one thing.
On the other hand, Higgins happens to be sitting in an armchair at the base of that huge staring head. A three-dimensional map of the mind, it emits a spooky whitish glow. The rest of the stage is shrouded in black. And that says something else: something decidedly more disturbing.
This "My Fair Lady" winds up trying to have its crumpets and eat them, too.
Stripped almost entirely of its romanticism and honed to a provocative post-Modern edge, Howard Davies' staging of "My Fair Lady" delivers a jolt to those in search of a comforting throwback to Moss Hart's original staging of the 1956 Lerner & Loewe blockbuster or George Cukor's screen adaptation. With Richard Chamberlain's tough-minded Henry Higgins and the endearingly confrontational Eliza Doolittle of Melissa Errico in a career-making performance , this "Lady" seems closer in spirit to "Pygmalion," the Shaw play it's based on. More a production for the age than for the ages, Errico's knockout turn alone should keep the Virginia filled for a good long time.
Best known in New York for his deft stagings of Christopher Hampton's adaptation of "Les Liaisons Dangereuses" and a revival of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" for a steamy Kathleen Turner, British director Davies has a special gift for divining ice water running through the veins of sexually torrid material.
The effect can be at once riveting and disturbing (as it was in "Liaisons"). This production owes much to his staging last year of "Pygmalion" for the Royal National Theater, where, with the brilliant set designer Ralph Koltai, Davies replaced the Edwardian niceties with a more contemporary vision of class and sexual conflict.
That may be well and good for "Pygmalion," but the conceit transfers to "My Fair Lady" with more limited success: Here is Covent Garden suggested by stacks of shipping flats framing the buskers, peddlers and panhandlers in a striking, unhappy tableau vivant -- a Joseph Cornell sculpture on a life-size scale. Nothing is prettified; here, "With a Little Bit of Luck" virtually comes off as an exercise in Brechtian alienation.
The "Ascot Gavotte"-- whose startling monochrome is so ingrained in legend that Madonna pays tribute to it in her current show -- is re-created as a living Magritte canvas, the actors in colorful finery descending from the flies to hover above the action against a field of brilliant blue. Do they obliterate all memory of the Oliver Smith/Cecil Beaton original? Not really.
For one thing, the effect is undermined by the ugly, iridescent pastels in which Patricia Zipprodt has dressed the women; more importantly, one is hard pressed to see the whole thing as more than an arresting visual gimmick.
Donald Saddler's dances are serviceable for a show that isn't much about dancing, with "Get Me to the Church on Time" the most rousing production number. The sets, "based on" Koltai's originals, look like the touring knock-offs they are, though Natasha Katz's fine lighting makes everything look quite respectable.
But it's in the performances that Davies must make his case, and here, too, the result is at best mixed. Chamberlain, the star draw, is delightfully gruff without ever being really commanding as the brilliant but self-absorbed professor. The nasty imprecations Higgins hurls at Eliza generally dissipate in a benign bluster; even when he pulls himself up just short of throttling her, Chamberlain is never as threatening as the director seems to want him to be.
Moreover, there's no spark in his relationship with Errico and thus a vast emptiness where "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face" should be.
Paxton Whitehead is the very model of a modern, major Colonel, a stolid but humanizing force in these unfriendly environs. Robert Sella is abundantly hopeful and charming as Eliza's suitor, Freddie Eynsford-Hill.
And the cast has a second revelation nearly the match of its Eliza: Her father, Alfred P. Doolittle -- the working-class scoundrel all but tricked into middle-class respectability -- is played by Julian Holloway, son of the actor who originated the role, Stanley Holloway. Julian presents a much darker character than his father did, without sacrificing the humor; a fine performance , it's the one that best captures the director's vision.
The only serious miscasting is Lisa Merrill McCord's coarse, over-painted Mrs. Eynsford-Hill.
And then there is Errico. Her Eliza is self-confident, big-voiced and utterly warm, shaking up phrasings that were as familiar as lullabies, imprinting each remembered lyric with her own vocal stamp.
If only Zipprodt hadn't given this Cinderella such a vulgar scarlet gown to wear to that ball at the embassy. No matter. Whatever she's wearing, she's absolutely loverly.