There is something so romantic about Bartlett Sher’s revival of Lerner and Loewe’s My Fair Lady that makes us see the show in a different way. This is not Shaw’s Pygmalion or even the original Moss Hart version. Songs have been rearranged and lines added and/or taken away, but what you get is an emotionally filled text and lyrics that explode with connection. Eliza Doolittle (Lauren Ambrose) is still the Cockney flower seller, but she wants to better herself, and she means it. Never knowing kindness, she falls for Professor Henry Higgins (Harry Hadden-Paton) when he dances with her after she learns to find her voice. She is enamored with both him and learning. But Higgins is a confirmed bachelor and therefore needs convincing.
The whole premise revolves around a bet that Higgins has with Col. Hugh Pickering (Allan Corduner). Higgins states that he could turn a “guttersnipe” into a person he can take to the Embassy ball, but this could never happen if Eliza hadn’t shown up on Higgins’s doorstep in the first place.
At first, the luxurious set by Michael Yeargan keeps us at arm’s length away from the action, making us feel like outsiders. But slowly the sheer emotion brings the actors downstage, and when they do, we slowly fall in love with them. Catherine Zuber’s decadent costumes and Donald Holder’s haunting lighting are scrumptious masterpieces.
Lauren Ambrose embraces the love Eliza feels for Higgins. She is not young and, in this version, this may well be Eliza’s last chance. Though she has not lost her hope, she is tough, rebellious, and ready to work once she embraces her feelings for Higgins. Ambrose’s Eliza has an awakening that she can move on from a girl having a drunken father (Norbert Leo Butz), to a woman who “can do bloody well” without Higgins or anyone else. Her voice is loverly, and it grows as she does. Ms. Ambrose gives us a complete arc.
Harry Hadden-Paton gives us a man who is devoid of feelings until he meets Eliza, who awakens in him the need for companionship. His love has always been language and Hadden-Paton gives us language we can swoon at. He is a snob who has never known what it is like to be poor, therefore he is oblivious to their plight. He sees himself as Eliza’s Svengali and the chemistry between the two doesn’t hurt. The fight between the two shows just how much Henry does not know, because he has never been taught. Sadly, he learns too late in this version. His wonderful vocals are so realistic, that they help keep this story on track.
Dame Diana Rigg gives an amazing performance as Higgins mother, and in a way, you wonder how he turned out so poorly. It was also a treat to see this actress back on the stage in New York.
Sher’s direction is at times hit or miss. You have these lovely unfolding moments between Henry and Eliza, and even Mrs. Higgins, but then you have the amazingly talented Norbert Leo Butz’s as Eliza’s dad, Alfred P. Doolittle. Instead of allowing him to shine, he has been given over-the-top numbers, making them seem rather kitschy. Though they are audience pleasers. Jordan Donica’s Freddy, whose solo “On the Street Where You Live” is sung beautifully, but you never really get that Freddy is in love with Eliza enough to put him out on the street night after night.
Despite that, the transformations of Eliza and Higgins are so heartbreaking. Sher’s My Fair Lady is a study of one person finding themselves, just when the other has started their journey.
My Fair Lady: Lincoln Center Theater, Vivian Beaumont Theater, 10 Lincoln Center Plaza.