I passed the first act of My Fair Lady in a haze of pleasure. This is the touring version of Trevor Nunn's acclaimed London production, complete with high-tech values, stunningly beautiful costumes, and leads who have significant and impressive resumés. The direction is inventive, making many of the familiar songs and scenes new again.
My Fair Lady is, of course, one of the best musicals ever written. What other musical has dialogue courtesy of George Bernard Shaw and his play Pygmalion? And Lerner and Loewe's songs are full of felicities. The musical romanticizes the plot — how could it not? — but it also clearly expresses Shaw's wit and his iconoclastic ideas. This is the story of a phonetics expert, Henry Higgins, who takes on Eliza Doolittle, a Cockney flower girl, convinced that he can clean her up, work on her speech patterns and make a lady of her. But it's also a play about the struggle for power between an obtuse man and a woman who is far smarter and tougher-minded than she at first seems. Higgins isn't your standard leading man; he's neither suave and sophisticated nor youthful, handsome and passionate. A confirmed bachelor, he can be arrogant and unfeeling, and he drives his twenty-year-old protegé mercilessly.
Nunn's version of the musical has been praised for not sugarcoating the issues of class and social standing so important to Shaw. You can see from the staging that Eliza's background is sad, mean and smelly, and this adds poignancy to her musings about a warm room and a comfortable chair in "Wouldn't It Be Loverly?" Alfred Doolittle, Eliza's father, isn't just the merry-hearted, wheedling, freewheeling Cockney we've come to expect, but a godawful father who feels no real love for his daughter. The stalwart Colonel Pickering may be gay (I don't think Shaw would have liked this; he wasn't much given to Freudianizing), and Eliza's rebuke to the love-besotted Freddy, "Show Me," is at one point framed by sign-waving suffragettes.
My Fair Lady
Presented by Denver Center Attractions through April 6, Buell Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org.
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But who's kidding whom? At heart, My Fair Lady is a classic Cinderella story, complete with a triumph at the ball. And the brilliant renditions of such songs as Doolittle's "With a Little Bit of Luck" and the "Ascot Gavotte" — which features wonderfully stylized black hats and dresses and young men prancing like horses — are pure musical comedy at its best.
Still, by the second act, my enthusiasm was waning a little. I think that's partly the fault of the original script: Nothing that happens after the ball has the heft and excitement of what precedes it, and the ending is difficult. Shaw never intended Higgins and Eliza to end up together as a couple, but even in his time, audiences clamored for a happy ending, and a 1950s musical without one would have been unthinkable. Nunn does leave the conclusion somewhat ambiguous, but it isn't exactly a rich ambiguity.
Christopher Cazenove makes Higgins more brusque and less elegant than such famous predecessors as Leslie Howard and Rex Harrison, which is appropriate, though not as magical. Lisa O'Hare, who plays Eliza, is a dancer. She's possessed of a clear, melodious voice, both speaking and singing, as well as tremendous beauty, poise and presence. When she tells a group of toffs in her now sweetly rounded accents that "My aunt died of influenza, so they said. But it's my belief they done the old woman in," it's absolutely delicious. But O'Hare is not a realistic actress, which means you don't feel much current between her and Higgins. And the big emotional scenes — the ones in which she confronts him, or realizes that she now belongs to neither the Cockney world nor the world of the monied upper class — are unconvincing.
There's major talent in other roles — Walter Charles as Pickering, Marni Nixon (who provided the voice for Audrey Hepburn's Eliza in the film) as Mrs. Higgins — and also in sections of the chorus. Tim Jerome's Alfred Doolittle has an irresistible capering, rubber-limbed quality, though I had trouble understanding his words. But there are also weaknesses: a few less accomplished dancers, English pronunciations that fail to convince, a jarring attempt at a Hungarian accent. The sound is off and the tech in general fluxy. You can tell that the original show was a visual and aural feast, but somehow the version you're watching has blurred at the edges, so that sometimes you're seeing only a suggestion of Nunn's direction, Matthew Bourne's choreography and David Hersey's lighting. When Higgins walks alone through London speak-singing "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face," ghostly flower girls assail him, first singly, then in small groups. Watching, I couldn't help thinking that it was a lovely idea — and must have been absolutely gorgeous in London.