Review: My Fair Lady

Going to see a revival of any Broadway musical is a gamble. A musical revival is a lot like a movie sequel. It rarely lives up to the original. I have seen Les Miserables three times over fifteen years and each tour was a step down from the last tour. Each incarnation becomes just a little more shopworn. Some musicals like Cats have been on so many tours that someone should shoot it to put it out of its misery.

It has been fifty years since My Fair Lady first appeared on Broadway. I was a baby in a bassinet when it first came out. My Fair Lady is one of these landmark musicals and excruciatingly hard to do right. For one thing, Rex Harrison epitomized the role of Professor Henry Higgins, both on stage and in the movie. In 1965, he won Best Actor for the role. The film itself also won Best Picture. Consequently, any revival of the musical must be treated with asbestos gloves. The chances are you are more likely to screw it up than satisfy.

Cameron Mackintosh though took the risk with this national tour. His risk was mitigated in part by getting many of the same cast that performed it so successfully on London’s West End back in 2001. My Fair Lady rolled into Washington, DC last month. My wife, daughter and I caught one of its last performances Saturday night before it moved on.

Good news to residents of Chicago, Boston, Minneapolis, Indianapolis, Newark, Los Angeles, Toronto, Costa Mesa (California) and Tempe (Arizona). This tour of My Fair Lady feels as fresh as it was fifty years ago. While obviously I never saw it on Broadway, it fares nearly as well as the 1964 movie. Since it got a good review, I felt lucky to get tickets to it at all, and had to select from one of the later performances. Dig deep into your wallet and buy your tickets now. Any fan of musicals who has the opportunity to see this tour and misses it has only himself to blame. It may not role into Tempe, Arizona until June 17th, but if I lived out there I’d still try to get my tickets now.

Its success depends in part on faithfully sticking with well-known material. Christopher Cazenove, who plays Professor Henry Higgins, borrows more than a little from the late Rex Harrison’s portrayal. Considering what an odd and cantankerous professor Henry Higgins is, he would be hard to reinvent, and that he does not is perhaps just as well. Most of the characters studiously replicate the characters that preceded them in its original production. Walter Charles, as Colonel Hugh Pickering, looks like he could have been plucked from Wilfrid Hyde-White’s portrayal on the screen.

There are some exceptions. Unquestionably, the most fun part to play in the musical is the part of Eliza’s lowbrow alcoholic father, Alfred P. Doolittle, acted in this production by Tim Jerome. Jerome brings an enormous amount of energy to his supporting part and practically carries the whole cast off with him. This is one reason why it is so surprising that the rest of the production works so well. He could easily overshadow the rest of the actors and yet he does not. Lisa O’Hare delights as Eliza Doolittle, yet she gives her role a subtly different energy than Audrey Hepburn did in the movie. Except for being significantly wider in girth than Rex Harrison was, Cazenove slips into Higgins’ role with consummate familiarity.

As you might expect, complementing the ensemble is glorious dancing, magnificent staging and a wonderful energy from the cast. The only off-note of the evening was that the horns from the orchestra tended to make the higher registers from the performers hard to hear. That may have been due in part to the acoustics of the Kennedy Center Opera House or an overenthusiastic trumpeter. I was also somewhat annoyed by patrons arriving late, which made it hard to enjoy the first ten minutes of the show.

Thankfully, I can check My Fair Lady off the list of first class musicals that I have seen staged and thoroughly enjoyed. I realize that we were fortunate to get such a fine touring version. I must remember to keep my expectations more modest for the next musical that comes into town.

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