Stricken with acoustical woes at the Ahmanson Theatre and a Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle with virtually no chemistry, the Cameron Mackintosh/National Theatre of Great Britain production of "My Fair Lady" somehow managed to avoid total disaster at its rocky opening Thursday. It was a close call, but between the audible parts of the "loverly" Lerner and Loewe score and the polished "Cinderella" situation of George Bernard Shaw's tale, there was enough to keep those willing to be entertained from abandoning ship.
Credit the creators for manufacturing a miracle of theatrical Teflon. With material this winning, you can't really go wrong, though the revival, which was acclaimed in London when it premiered in 2001, hasn't arrived at this leg of its U.S. tour in tip-top shape. In fact, one would like to prescribe a seaside retreat for the entire cast (whose fatigue is evident in the epidemic of mugging going on) while sound engineers try to figure out the chronic amplification problem, which turned the first couple of scenes into an alphabet soup of British accents.
All of these afflictions notwithstanding, it's hard to denigrate "My Fair Lady." Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe's 1956 classic, adapted from Shaw's "Pygmalion" (and the 1938 film), isn't just one of the most successful shows from the golden age of the American musical. It's a franchise that includes an Oscar-winning picture, a chart-busting cast album (with such heart-melting hits as "I Could Have Danced All Night," "On the Street Where You Live," "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face") and an international parade of lucrative revivals.
To think that Rodgers and Hammerstein gave up on trying to musicalize Shaw's tale of a phonetics professor who sets out to turn a cockney flower girl into a proper-speaking princess. And that Lerner and Loewe barely overcame the slew of obstacles (including securing the rights and dealing with Rex Harrison's temperament) that stood in the way of their unassailable dream.
Strict disciples of Shaw, of course, haven't always approved. Lerner's tweaked ending, in particular, stuck in the craws of those who have trouble seeing Higgins lay aside his misogyny for the implied possibility of marital bliss.
But in musical theater terms, "My Fair Lady" undeniably represents a significant dramatic breakthrough. The songs don't merely illustrate the story but extend it. This is a genuine music drama, executed with marvelous restraint so that the sharp critical intelligence of the play, which is as much a skewering of capitalism's hypocrisy as it is an enchanting fable of a young woman's social metamorphosis, isn't entirely bowdlerized.
Say what you will about its astonishing lack of subtlety, Trevor Nunn's staging certainly has eye-catching moments. Designer Anthony Ward whisks us through atmospheric fog to tour Covent Garden, the tenements and pubs of Tottenham Court Road and the deluxe reaches of Higgins' book-crammed town house and his mother's gracious garden room. And choreographer Matthew Bourne tries to put an extra spring in the ensemble's step (no matter that the flashiness often seems dramatically silly).
The explosive handling of "With a Little Bit of Luck," led by Eliza's booze-soaked dad (Tim Jerome), lends percussive force to this early number with a deafening symphony of trash-can lids. The showiness galvanizes at first, but it also hints at the crowd-pleasing vulgarity that will allow Jerome's performance to become clownishly broad and Bourne's dances to detach themselves from the situations inspiring them.
Taken separately, the leads have much to recommend them. Christopher Cazenove's Higgins makes a most believable sedentary academic, the kind of repressed sort who has become all brain, no body. He refers to himself as a "confirmed old bachelor," and no one has reason to doubt him. His acting is unsentimental, yet he lacks the gruff charm capable of stirring Eliza's heavily guarded romantic interest. The only plausible explanation for why she falls in love with him is his impressive real estate holdings.
Lisa O'Hare's Eliza doesn't simply have a beautiful voice -- she has a beautiful voice with personality. (Would that Henry Higgins could have rid her of the cupped-hands-to-heart gestures that accompany her singing.) She's also a dream to look at, drawing more on Audrey Hepburn's sultriness than Julie Andrews' waifishness.
But one needs to suspend not just disbelief but common sense to go along with the idea that these two characters are slowly but surely falling for each other. In truth, it would be easier to accept that Higgins was developing the hots for Col. Pickering (a fine Walter Charles), his fellow doddering linguist with whom he enjoys so much domestic coziness.
When the first incantatory strains of "I Could Have Danced All Night" signal more amatory desire than Eliza is consciously aware of, the emotion seems to come out of the clear blue sky. The girl has been grilled, day and night, on her wayward vowels by a guy who looks like he'd rather be her uncle than her lover.
Freddy (Justin Bohon), the hapless young man who finds Eliza's gaffes utterly fetching, may not be much competition for the distinguished scholar Higgins, but too bad the kids don't just run off and leave the middle-aged homebodies to their afternoon tea cakes. If it weren't for Bohon's overdone goofiness as Freddy, the ending might seem unintentionally melancholy -- as though Eliza let her true love slip away.
In a welcome appearance, Marni Nixon, who dubbed Hepburn's singing in the movie, plays Higgins' mother. Nixon cuts a crisp comic figure, though as the ironic gods would have it, she's given a role without a song, and no one should be deprived of the splendor of her voice.
And yet we're carping about one of the great musicals. Complain all you want about the clumsy service, it's still a delicious dish.