While Carousel spins its gorgeous melodies and troublesome social politics in Midtown Manhattan, My Fair Lady, its lighter-hearted companion in the Big Book of treasured musicals toting outdated notions, has opened some 20 blocks north in a sumptuous Lincoln Center Theater production, its cast of 37 led by a tempestuous Lauren Ambrose and, in his Broadway debut, Harry Hadden-Paton, best known stateside for a Prince Charming turn on Downton Abbey but here making a right turn by going full-bore, unapologetic cad as that most arrogant of misogynists, Professor Henry Higgins.
In a parity not generally associated with this tale of young female molding in old male hands, the casting of the 40-year-old Ambrose and 37-year-old Hadden-Paton (even with some age make-up) makes for something of a My Fair Lady for the #MeToo moment. Even at the start, Ambrose is no withering little flower girl, nor Hadden-Paton the old-even-when-young Rex Harrison looming over his charge. I’ve no idea how traditionalists and the nostalgically invested will take to the casting, but for me, Ambrose’s Eliza is welcome ballast, even even if Henry’s crueler bons mot still sting of patriarchy and classism – the 20th Century kind, not the Edwardian).
Directed by Bartlett Sher with an eye to the musical’s gloried past and a grasp of its place in the present, this My Fair Lady makes no outwardly heroic attempts to modernize or particularly soften the sexism of two posh gentlemen placing bets on whether one of them can transform (i.e., browbeat) a penniless slum dweller into a capital-L Lady suitable for presentation in capital-S Society. But with Ambrose and Hadden-Paton on stage, this My Fair Lady seems at least a fair fight.
In addition to adding a trunkful of show tunes to the musical theater canon (“Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?”, “The Rain In Spain”, “I Could Have Danced All Night,” etc.), the 1956 Lerner & Loewe musical made a Broadway star of Julie Andrews in the role of Cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle.
Just last year, Andrews herself told the Sydney Morning Herald, “Oh gosh – it is very, very sexist. Young women in particular will and should find it hard. You have to remember that this story is set just a couple of years before the rise of the Suffragette movement. Women’s rights aren’t there yet but emancipation is where [Eliza’s] heading. I firmly believe that.”
Andrews’ belief would be bolstered by Ambrose’s performance, a portrayal at times almost feral in its presentation of Eliza’s ambition and fighting spirit. The actress from Six Feet Under – and, yes, she can sing – gives the production the counterweight it needs to present a Higgins as undiluted as the one offered up by Hadden-Paton. (In that same Sydney interview, Andrews said she suspected the single-minded, obsessively arrogant Henry Higgins might today be considered on the autism spectrum, and Hadden-Paton’s funny, unapologetically privileged performance tends that way – until it doesn’t).
But My Fair Lady was never just about Eliza’s transformation – Henry undergoes his own metamorphosis, from thoroughly self-absorbed to something a bit more open to emotional possibility, and Hadden-Paton’s sturdy control of his character makes a fine guide though Henry’s subtle transformations. Yes, by the end of this My Fair Lady, Henry Higgins gets just a wee bit woke.
The well-cast new Broadway production also features a regal, ever-welcome Diana Rigg as Henry’s thoughtful, open-minded mother, a scene-stealing Norbert Leo Butz as Eliza’s amusingly good-for-nothing father and an endearing Allan Corduner as Colonel Pickering, Henry’s more compassionate partner in social experimentation.
The impeccable set design by Michael Yeargan, whose London streetscapes shift purposefully between cobblestone realism and antique pressed-tin-dollhouse nostalgia, is matched yard for yard by Catherine Zuber’s costumes, from Henry’s paisley silk robes and Eliza’s entrance-making melon-colored evening gown to every grubby layer of the shawl-and-tattered waistcoat crowd.
Is it possible the entire affair is just all too tasteful? On the large, widescreen-dimensions of of the Lincoln Center stage, this Lady occasionally has the look of a well-funded opera, its preserved-in-amber charms an edgeless succession of spotless performances, and no-fault musical numbers (Butz’s “Get Me To The Church On Time” is a table-dancing marvel of timing, comic and otherwise). The choreography by Christopher Gattelli honors both the angular modernism of the famed “Ascot Gavotte” and the jubilant outbreak from Eliza, Henry and Pickering that caps “The Rain in Spain.”
The famously unresolved ending tilts, perhaps more than ever (or at least to my remembering), to Eliza’s advantage, a win achieved by smart stage directing and two finely matched performances (keep watch on their faces until the lights go out). My Fair Lady is a relic, but it polishes nicely.