Monday, May 15, 2017

Inherent Wonders Enchant, but Lyric's 'My Fair Lady' Isn't the Fairest of Them All -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater / Opera Review

My Fair Lady
Lyric Opera of Chicago
Thru May 21

Lerner & Loewe's My Fair Lady may well be the Broadway musical containing--in sum--the best Broadway music ever written.

I certainly would accept and respect arguments for West Side Story, The Sound of Music, Les Misérables, The Music Man, Fiddler on the Roof, Cabaret, Evita and others, but I find My Fair Lady's collection of songs hard to beat.

"Wouldn't It Be Loverly?, "With a Little Bit of Luck, "Just You Wait," "The Rain in Spain, "I Could Have Danced All Night," "On the Street Where You Live," "Show Me," "Get Me to the Church on Time," "Without You" and "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face" are all rather masterful--and long ingrained in my brain.

Famously based on the play Pygmalion by the widely revered George Bernard Shaw, My Fair Lady has--if Wikipedia can fairly be believed--frequently been called "the perfect musical."

Photo credit on all: Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune
But the current Lyric Opera of Chicago rendition--actually a production by the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris rather than one created under Lyric auspices as with four Rodgers & Hammerstein works in preceding years--corroborates my sense from five previous stage iterations that it is a hard musical to stage perfectly.

First of all, the show's book--penned, along with the lyrics, by Alan Jay Lerner--contains more dialogue than most musicals, with Lerner wanting to incorporate Pygmalion with considerable depth.

Thus, with a long time until, and between, musical numbers, this can make the pacing a challenge.

And while there is presumably plenty of satire in Shaw's London-based storyline--in full disclosure, I've never read Pygmalion--involving Professor Henry Higgins (played at the Lyric by Richard E. Grant) teaching phonetics to Cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle (Lisa O'Hare) in something of a wager with houseguest Colonel Pickering (Nicholas Le Prevost), the tonality can be tricky in making Higgins insufferable yet not irredeemable, and the whole thing not feel crassly and anachronistically patriarchal.

While hearing the robust Lyric orchestra under the direction of David Chase play Loewe's scintillating score, with delectable (Broadway-style, not operatic) vocals from O'Hare, Grant and the entire cast, made seeing My Fair Lady unequivocally enjoyable, the challenges above--and others--weren't conquered in a way to make it truly transcendent.

To be fair, my attention and appreciation was initially impaired by a couple of teenagers sitting in front of me, clearly not there of their own volition and disturbing me by talking and laughing amongst each other--seemingly not regarding the show--looking at cell phones, diffusing light to read the program, etc.

I was able to move seats and mostly watch the show without issue, but it was hard to achieve full immersion.

Also, as the Lyric run of My Fair Lady is closer to the end than to the beginning, I can't deny being well aware that the two foremost Chicago theater critics--Chris Jones of the Tribune and Hedy Weiss of the Sun-Times--were rather lukewarm about this production.

Though I was hoping and expecting to like it well more than them--and seem to have--it's not impossible that I was influenced a bit by their reviews and a relative's take that, like mine, was short of scintillation.

Grant certainly brings a depth of impressive credits and sang his part well, but I felt his Higgins was too self-amused and cruel to Eliza in a way--beyond the scripted words--that hardened the necessary softening between them.

O'Hare, who I saw play in Eliza in 2008 without any recollection, is lovely and vocally delightful--I especially enjoyed her take on "Just You Wait"--but understandably and without cause for apology, isn't Audrey Hepburn.

And along with--still--never seeing a live My Fair Lady production that I felt equaled the inherent wonders of the source material, I also haven't seen any I've loved as much as the 1964 Oscar-winning movie (starring Hepburn and Rex Harrison).

Again, there may have been mitigating factors, including a somewhat distant vantage point in a venue likely too large to best enjoy this show, but I found this version lacked any obvious chemistry between Eliza and Higgins (even though My Fair Lady isn't a traditional love story or romantic comedy).

Also, while everything was well sung and performed--including the communal Covent Garden numbers led by Eliza's dad Alfred (Donald Maxwell)--much of the whole affair just felt somewhat muted.

Believe me, I tried to supply--without actually singing, thank goodness--the necessary buoyancy on "With a Little Bit of Luck," "I Could Have Danced All Night" and "Get Me to the Church on Time," and didn't not enjoy them, but unlike, say, the Lyric's resplendent Sound of Music in 2014, this My Fair Lady fell short of absolute bliss.

Flaws or not, I would still recommend it, especially for the right price. (I can't find any specific discounts at the moment, but know some had existed.)

The songs are that exquisite, and--if no one is chattering nearby--you should be smiling from note one of the overture.

Even if my mind wasn't quite blown, there was far more to like than not.

Including a rekindling of my affinity for the film, which is back in my DVD player as I type this.

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