By Patrick O’Brien
The sheer marble-white the audience encounters at Lyric Opera’s My Fair Lady says a lot. It’s reflective of the Roman mythologizing from which George Bernard Shaw, with much irony, pulled the name Pygmalion for his story of Eliza Doolittle, the guttersnipe “creation” who defied her “creator,” Professor Henry Higgins.
It’s also reflective of its unimpeachable status in the canon. Oft considered the best musical ever written, it’s all the more remarkable when one remembers that just the thought of anyone musicalizing Pygmalion — even talents like Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe — was once anything but unimpeachable.
Alas, it’s also rather reflective of what little impression this production leaves behind.
Most unfair, indeed, for Lisa O’Hare is as fine an Eliza as any. She’s essayed the role before, but it’s never rote; she’s every inch the Cockney flower girl who cops to no one, and gifted with a superb soprano, to boot. And it’s a pleasure to see her reunited, however briefly, with Bryce Pinkham, her co-star on Broadway in A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, who here plays the far-less murderous Freddy Eynsford-Hill, and who sends the audience sailing with his signature “On the Street Where You Live.”
And it looks and sounds appropriately sumptuous. Even in marble-white and an overall muted color palette, Tim Hatley’s sets and Anthony Powell’s costumes are artful. And David Chase easily guides the pit through romance and oom-pah.
It’s all appropriately droll, but it lacks sparkle and crackle, which is most necessary to get this talky, weighty musical off the ground. This can probably be attributed to the two forces that drive Eliza’s journey.
Richard E. Grant has also played Henry Higgins before, but here, his is a muddled performance. A century of conjecture on the role of Higgins has pinned him with everything from developmental disorders to rampant misogyny to plain-and-simple a-holery. Grant seems to try a bit of everything at once, but it makes the central pair’s mutual attraction harder to divine. And his jumping and waving about — granted, with a glee befitting the theater’s biggest prig — grows wearisome. Higgins should be free to run roughshod over polite society, rather than stomp it into the ground. That said, when he slows down for “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face,” his late discovery of song, as it were, is effective.
For his part, Donald Maxwell as the deadbeat Alfred Doolittle, indeed does little when he ought to be carousing about. His second-act showstopper, “Get Me to the Church On Time,” is a high-kicking high point of the production, but it throws the lack of zest elsewhere into harsher relief.
Well, not wholly elsewhere. There is strong support among the less assuming roles, especially Helen Carey as Mrs. Higgins (if Mrs. Higgins could be called “unassuming”) and Cindy Gold as Mrs. Pearce, the lady of Higgins’s house and the closest Eliza has to a maternal figure. Nicholas Le Provost is an unflappable-until-flapped Pickering.
Or perhaps these flaws are imagined, and everything the production needs is there, but merely lost. Shaw’s class-consciousness and Lerner’s wit need the precision of scalpels, and such precision is lost in the large auditorium. Odd for a production originally conceived and mounted in an opera house; in this case, the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris. Also odd for director Robert Carsen, whose deeply intimate production of Eugene Onegin played earlier this season in the same space to great success.
It’s a new tongue-twister for Eliza: Location, location, location. And if one can adjust their sense of scale just right, this might just find a gripping, absolutely ripping time.
Lyric Opera of Chicago presents ‘My Fair Lady’ through May 28 at the Civic Opera House, 20 N Upper Wacker Drive. More information and tickets are available here. Photos by Todd Rosenberg Photography.