Lerner and Loewe, after Shaw
Lincoln Center Theatre
Palace Theatre, Manchester
March 22-April 1, 2023: 3 hrs
There are really only two roles in My Fair Lady that matter: the self-regarding and boorish bachelor Henry Higgins, and the starry-eyed, insecure and passionate Eliza. Get those two right and number three, the tunes, will do the rest.
I really enjoyed this revival of the show, because it scored so well on two out of those three counts. But there’s a little regret that it doesn’t quite get there on all three.
Frederick Loewe’s score, the nearest thing to a mid-20th century Austro-German operetta to come out of the American musical play tradition, is unforgettable. Most of the numbers are now in folk memory. But the story is so close to the idiosyncrasies of Shaw’s 1913 play that it takes a bit of believing that any of its characters could be real people.
Bartlett Sher’s production for the Lincoln Center Theater, after a stint at the London Coliseum courtesy of English National Opera, is now coming to the end of its UK tour. It’s a crowd-pleaser without a doubt, and I for one went home humming the set, whose main ingredient is an ingenious four-sided, two-storey interior for the Higgins house on a revolve, so movement between rooms can be achieved (though we aren't quite sure whose rooms are upstairs and whose down).
And there’s more: several other beautifully-designed structures (by Michael Yeargan) move in and out, and some are flown in from above, to make a constantly-changing visual kaleidoscope. Only the Ascot scene felt slightly lacking in that respect, consisting simply of a backcloth and a kind of awning that alternately folds and unfolds. But Catherine Zuber’s costumes make up for it and give plenty of colour and character throughout the show.
At the beginning, St Paul’s Church Covent Garden has somehow been replanted in Bow Street, the better to show the Royal Opera House in the background (I guess this must have been for the orientation of American show-goers). That, and the sense of near-caricature of several characters (particularly Tom Liggins’s goofy Freddy Eynsford-Hill and Lesley Garrett’s Yorkshire-luv Mrs Pearce) are probably part of a US audience-necessitated original approach.
Adam Woodyatt (Eastenders’ former Ian Beale) is good fun as Alfred P Doolittle, and Sher gives him a near show-stopping routine in I’m getting married in the morning which could be straight out of The Greatest Showman. And John Middleton, of Emmerdale fame, makes a good straight fist of Colonel Pickering.
But it’s down to Michael D Xavier as Higgins and Charlotte Kennedy as Eliza to be the icing on the cake. For those who remember the 1964 film, Xavier’s main virtue is that he’s not Rex Harrison – and he can sing. I think he may have modelled himself a little on Jonathan Pryce’s masterly version of Higgins in the UK National Theatre production by Trevor Nunn (now that was a show!), but without the subtlety.
Charlotte Kennedy, though (a former Cosette in Les Mis), can do subtlety. She really is the star of this production, with an unusual singing voice that’s both passionate and vulnerable, and a way of presenting Eliza that isn’t a feminist-style makeover but still constantly reminds you of the steel wrapped in even her most compliant velvet, and the emotional wrench within her that’s still unresolved at the end.
More info and tickets here