Lerner and Loewe’s 1956 version of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion has long provided the gold standard for musical adaptations. It both honours the original source material and enhance it with gorgeous, glowingly memorable songs.
A play about Britain’s preoccupation with class and accent is turned into a lusciously melodic musical classic, just as a Covent Garden flower-seller, when taught the right vowels and dress sense, is transformed into a society duchess.
Director Bartlett Sher’s last spectacular revival at this address was The King and I, which is preparing to transfer to the London Palladium. He is now helming a Rolls Royce production of My Fair Lady, in Broadway’s fourth revival of the title since the original production. It positively glows with class, shimmering with confidence and oozing with delight.
But Sher also maintains the show’s pertinent astringency, as it portrays how Professor Henry Higgins – a stubborn mule of a confirmed bachelor linguist who treats Eliza Doolittle as little more than a project to be manipulated and re-trained – is wrong-footed when she finally melts his own surprised heart. British actor Harry Hadden-Paton brings a nicely youthful yet appropriately flummoxed air to the role, and in what appears to be his first musical, carries the songs with conviction, too.
He is ideally partnered by the earthy, gritty honesty of Lauren Ambrose’s Eliza; and even if her ‘posh’ accent feels a bit forced, that’s also entirely in character for a part that undergoes the kind of transformation that she does.
There is luxury casting all around them. Tony winners Norbert Leo Butz and Diana Rigg glint with mischief at opposite ends of the social spectrum, as Eliza’s dustman dad Alfred P Doolittle and Henry’s elegant mother respectively. That Rigg was herself once a famous Eliza Doolittle on the London stage in Pygmalion is a neat historical link, too. Another British actor, Allan Corduner, is a punchy, sympathetic Colonel Pickering, while Jordan Donica as Freddy Eynsford-Hill, who courts Eliza, is appropriately drippy but sings like a dream.
Michael Yeargan’s stunningly lavish sets whisk us from the Covent Garden piazza (the only error in an otherwise flawless staging is the inaccuracy of the St Paul’s portico being portrayed side-by-side with the Floral Hall) to Ascot racetrack and a state ballroom.
We also see the both the exterior and interiors of Higgins’ home in Wimpole Street that is placed on a revolve and transforms from his expansive double-height lounge/study to entrance hall and shower room. Catherine Zuber’s extraordinarily beautiful costumes and Ted Sperling’s glorious orchestra (which makes an onstage appearance in the ballroom scene) attest to a no-expenses spared production.