My Fair Lady: Classic In All The Good Ways

Classic can be a conundrum, especially in musical theater. Stay too close to the original and you’ve got yourself a fossil. Stray too far and you’ve got nothing put a pale imitation. The new production of “My Fair Lady” now playing at Boston’s Opera House does neither — it is a wonderfully appealing revival of Lerner and Loewe’s masterpiece that sparkles with its own wit, wisdom and sense of fun.

Yes, I said fun. The sumptuous music and lavish costumes can sometimes hide the humor and biting social commentary that lies just beneath the glossy surface of “My Fair Lady.” That’s George Bernard Shaw coming through. His play “Pygmalion” — on which “My Fair Lady” is based — put these issues front and center. This production, a direct import from the National Theatre of Great Britain, isn’t afraid to poke around with the class-based prejudices that Shaw loved to poke a stick in — and then of course deliver a fabulous musical number!

“My Fair Lady” sinks and swims with it’s two main characters, Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle and you couldn’t ask for a more charming odd couple than Christopher Cazenove and Lisa O’Hare. Cazenove brings us a softer more playful Higgins than the Rex Harrison template. Irascible as ever, but charming as well. It makes the May-December attraction between Higgins and Eliza more believable in the end. Cazenove is no singer, but the talk-sing approach works just fine for him, especially in the yearning closer “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face.”

Lisa O’Hare is every bit a singer. She’s got the power for the show stopping “I Could Have Danced All Night” — sort of the “Defying Gravity” of its day — and the more subtle ones, “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly” and “The Rain In Spain.” She’s almost too cute for Eliza — there’s no real grit in her flower girl persona, but she totally wins you over with her spunk and fire. O’Hare’s Eliza is a whirlwind of ambition and insecurity. You really pull for her.

The cast is uniformly strong, and why wouldn’t they be — handpicked by legendary producer Cameron Mackintosh and directed by Trevor Nunn. The role of Alfred P. Doolittle, Eliza’s father, has long been considered one of the plums of the musical theater canon. It’s so well written, and blessed with two killer songs — “With A Little Bit of Luck” and “Get Me to the Church on Time” — that the best approach is sometimes to back off a bit. That’s not what Tim Jerome does with old Alfie. He’s a scenery chewer from the git go — a five star ham. Jerome is still plenty fun to watch, but more in the old school vaudeville way.

Walter Charles as Higgins’ grammarian pal Colonel Hugh Pickering is prissy, but pleasing in the sidekick role. Justin Bohon plays Eliza’s dimwitted upper-crust suitor Freddy Eynsford-Hill strictly for laughs. It works pretty well and he has an interesting approach to the ballad “On The Street Where You Live.” Barbara Marineau is a delight as Mrs. Pearce, the grounded guardian of the Higgins estate, and Marni Nixon is luminous — yet dry as English gin — as Mrs. Higgins. This is a much deserved “guest” role for Nixon who was the singing voice of Audrey Hepburn in the movie “My Fair Lady” (and for Natalie Wood in “West Side Story”). It’s nice to see her front and center and in the spotlight.

A few quibbles. The “Ascot Gavotte” scene is done after a newspaper barker announces the death of the King. That puts all the women in black for what usually is a very colorful number. Different, but not better. Eliza’s hat is a hoot though — it looks like the planet Saturn orbiting her head. Also, Eliza’s dress for the ball is too much of an homage to Audrey Hepburn’s in the movie. I wanted O’Hare to have the chance to put her own stamp on that moment.

This is, however, on every important count a triumphant revival. It truly is like going to see a first rate production in the West End. The beauty of the Opera House only adds to the experience. If you’ve never seen “My Fair Lady” or even if you’ve seen it a hundred times you don’t want to miss this show. You only have until February 17 to catch the Boston run, see for yourself how this classic beautifully stands up to the test of time.

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