The current U.S. tour of My Fair Lady, presented Nov. 27-Dec. 2 by Broadway Series South in Raleigh Memorial Auditorium in the Progress Energy Center for the Performing Arts, is one star package that really twinkles. Stellar performances by Christopher Cazenove as Professor Henry Higgins and Lisa O’Hare as Covent Garden flower girl Eliza Doolittle provide enough candlepower to solve the nation’s energy crisis.
Cazenove and O’Hare, who are reprising their crowd-pleasing performances from the 2005 U.K. tour of the Cameron Mackintosh/Royal National Theatre revival of Lerner and Loewe’s extreme-makeover musical, have great chemistry and admirable energy. (You have to eat a really big bowl of Wheaties to keep climbing up and down that spiral staircase in the back of Higgins’ two-story study, crowded with 425 books.) Their charismatic characterizations of the curmudgeonly phonetics researcher and teacher and his prize pupil, a guttersnipe whom — to win a bet with Colonel Hugh Pickering (Walter Charles) — Higgins undertakes to lift out of the gutter, install in his own home, and educate in speech and manners until he can pass her off as a duchess at London’s annual Embassy Ball.
Chris Cazenove makes the supremely self-absorbed, self-described “confirmed OLD bachelor,” with a misanthropic — not to mention misogynistic — streak, an odious skunk at his own mother’s garden party and at the races at Ascot, which director Trevor Nunn brilliantly stages as part of a series of memorable tableaus that alone make this revival of My Fair Lady a must-see musical. Higgins’ bark is much worse than his bite, and Cazenove's subtlety gives the audience brief glimpses of the vulnerable man beneath the blustering, bullying exterior.
Lisa O’Hare plays Eliza Doolittle, the principal target of Higgins’ volcanic temper, with warmth, wit, and true spunk. She and Cazenove sing superbly, and O’Hare is an absolute vision of grace and ethereal beauty in her beautiful white ball gown — which makes the lovely Miss O’Hare resemble the exquisite ivory statue that captured the heart of the original Pygmalion. (Note: Dana DeLisa will play Eliza tonight and at the show’s Sunday-matinee performance.)
Because O’Hare’s Eliza is a true equal to Cazenove’s Higgins, Tuesday night’s Broadway Series South audience got to see that their extraordinary friendship is built, not on romantic attraction, but on mutual respect and platonic affection, as director Trevor Nunn’s staging of the show’s final scene underscores. (Pygmalion playwright George Bernard Shaw, whose 1913 comedy of manners contained an appendix arguing that Eliza should marry penniless aristocrat Freddy Eynsford-Hill rather than Professor Higgins, would certainly approve of Nunn’s decisions not to turn My Fair Lady’s antagonists into a May-December romance and have them end the evening locked in a passionate embrace.)
The performances of Lisa O’Hare and Chris Cazenove also benefit from the energy and imagination provided by an exceptionally strong supporting cast, headed by the hilarious Tim Jerome as Eliza’s feckless father Alfred P. Doolittle, a common dustman but an original thinker with a natural gift of oratory; charming Walter Charles as Higgins’ sweet-tempered but stuffy colleague Colonel Pickering; indomitable Sally Ann Howes as Henry’s sternly disapproving mother Mrs. Higgins; Barbara Marineau as Higgins’ unflappable housekeeper Mrs. Pearce; John Paul Almon as know-it-all Hungarian phoneticist and sleazy society blackmailer Zoltan Karpathy; and Justin Bohon as Eliza’s hopelessly smitten upper-class suitor Freddy Eynsford-Hill, an amiable boob who gets to sing one of the show’s great songs, “The Street Where You Live” (and Bohon turns Freddy’s signature tune into a showstopper). Taken together, the crackerjack comic characterizations and vibrant vocals of the My Fair Lady cast breathe new life into these familiar denizens of London, circa 1912.
Director Trevor Nunn and associate director Shaun Kerrison likewise give My Fair Lady a fresh, new feel by creating a series of tantalizing tableaus, starting with the stormy night that Professor Higgins and Miss Doolittle meet and continuing through the excursion to Ascot, the Embassy Ball, and a street scene in which Eliza runs away from her abortive reunion with Higgins via the London underground railway! Marvelous musical staging by Nunn, choreographer Matthew Bourne, and associate choreographer Fergus Logan adds some highly amusing touches to just about every comic scene. They not only expand Alfred P. Doolittle’s spree at the Red Lion Public House (“With a Little Bit of Luck”) into a Stomp-style musical extravaganza; but they also turn “Get Me to the Church on Time” into an epic East End pub-crawl.
Also adding to the Wow Factor for the Cameron Mackintosh/Royal National Theatre revival of My Fair Lady are the striking production design by Anthony Ward and U.S. tour set design associate Matt Kinley and costume design associate Christine Rowland, whose soaring sets and stunning period costumes evoke the ethos of turn-of-the-century London, and a brilliant lighting scheme by original lighting designer David Hersey and tour lighting designers Oliver Fenwick and Ron Halliday, who create a veritable symphony of light and darkness in foggy old London town.
The musical supervision by Stephen Brooker, orchestrations by William David Brohn, dance-music arrangements by Chris Walker, and invigorating instrumental accompaniment by conductor James Lowe and an animated orchestra also add oomph to this high-octane production.
My only caveat is, on Tuesday night, the complicated soundscape created by original sound designer Paul Groothuis and sound design associate Ed Clarke sometimes made it difficult to hear some of the actors’ lines. (Their diction was crisp; it was the amplification that was faulty.) Moreover, the surround-sound crescendo of hoof beats for two races at Ascot did not wrap around the auditorium. But subsequent finetuning has probably already made the sound design work better.
My Fair Lady is one of the best shows that this reviewer has seen in years and years. It is simply magical!
Broadway Series South presents My Fair Lady Thursday-Friday, Nov. 29-30, at 8 p.m.; Saturday, Dec. 1, at 2 and 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Dec. 2, at 2 and 7 p.m. in Raleigh Memorial Auditorium in the Progress Energy Center for the Performing Arts, 2 E. South St., Raleigh, North Carolina. $38-$71, except buy one ticket, get one free special for Nov. 27th and 28th performances only. Progress Energy Box Office: 919/831-6060. Note: Arts Access, Inc. of Raleigh, NC (http://www.artsaccessinc.org/) will audio-describe the 8 p.m. Dec. 1st performance. Broadway Series South: http://www.broadwayseriessouth.com/. Internet Broadway Database: http://www.ibdb.com/show.asp?ID=6369. The Tour: http://myfairladythemusical.com/ [inactive 7/09]. Internet Movie Database: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0030637/ (Pygmalion) and http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0058385/ (My Fair Lady). Christopher Cazenove: http://www.ibdb.com/person.asp?ID=83270 (Internet Broadway Database) and http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0147392/ (Internet Movie Database)