'Fair Lady' with heart in right place

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When Trevor Nunn staged his brilliant revisionist revival of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe's "My Fair Lady" in London in 2001, he managed a remarkable balancing act. He kept the bravura musical stagings, the London color, the witty contretemps and the majestic sweep through English social classes that has made this title such an abiding favorite for musical lovers. But he also excised the woolly, patriarchal influence of original 1956 Broadway star Rex Harrison and deftly reinstalled the musical's source, George Bernard Shaw's "Pygmalion," as its heart.

The expansive, new touring production now at the Cadillac Palace Theatre is a "restaging" of that epic Nunn show. That London production never made it to Broadway -- or hasn't made it yet, anyway. Mostly because it was too big and expensive. And while no touring show can compete with the colossal affair I saw at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane in the West End, this new Cameron Mackintosh production maintains Mackintosh's sterling reputation for size, scope and quality.

This is the full monty -- an old-fashioned tour with big sets, slick transitions, a large company, an ample orchestra, gorgeous costumes and a long running time. There's even a cameo as Mrs. Higgins by Marni Nixon, who sang all Eliza's songs in the 1964 movie version even though Audrey Hepburn's lips were moving.

Despite a few minor reductions in physical scope, most of Nunn's and choreographer Matthew Bourne's inspired work is deftly re-created these few years down the road, including the show-stopping staging of "I'm Getting Married in the Morning," which takes an ever-drunker Alfred P. Doolittle all over London to pubs, theaters and streets. Here, the fabulous Broadway veteran Tim Jerome deservedly brings the house down.The leads are a mixed bag. The British actress Lisa O'Hare, who plays Eliza, is delightful. Nunn's original conceit was to free the cockney gal from her cute and mostly compliant Hollywood history and turn her into a feistier proto-feminist who figures out Shaw's central point in "Pygmalion": The only difference between a flower seller and a lady is that one gets treated more nicely than other. O'Hare doesn't have a huge voice, but she's a lovely actress, a superb dancer and a very charming presence.

Christopher Cazenove, though, is insufficiently distinct from the central-casting image of Professor Henry Higgins that Nunn railed against. Cazenove needs to find the guts to go deeper into his character's nasty side -- this is a guy who uses a vulnerable working-class woman as fodder for a professional experiment -- if his journey toward enlightenment is to make sense. He also badly needs to increase the size and clarity of his overly introspective performance for big touring houses like the Caddy Palace. And Shavian elocution teachers don't mumble. That was Harrison, who needs to finally leave the building.

The leads are surrounded by a top-drawer cast, including superb Broadway character players such as Barbara Marineau, pitch-perfect as Mrs. Pearce. On Tuesday night, it seemed many in the audience were introducing this justly beloved show -- with one of the greatest scores in history -- to a younger generation. If you care to do the same, this show won't let you down.

'My Fair Lady'

A flower girl and a professor give each other lessons in life.

When: Through Feb. 3

Where: Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph St.

Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes

Tickets: $25-$75 at 312-902-1400 andhttp://www.broadwayin chicago.com

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cjones5@tribune.com

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