This 'Fair Lady' is exceptional

Times Staff Writer

Not all of the music at the Sunday night Hollywood Bowl performance of "My Fair Lady" was written by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe. The audience composed much of it on the spot as it sent choruses of laughter through the hillside amphitheater.

The outrageous wit of George Bernard Shaw, cribbed from his play "Pygmalion" and matched with lively lyrics by Lerner, proved timelessly entertaining, while Loewe's melodies conspired with the moon and stars on a perfect midsummer's evening to create a mood of hushed, expectant romance.

Making the combination still more irresistible was a marvelously chosen, Broadway-ready company led by John Lithgow as Henry Higgins, Melissa Errico as Eliza Doolittle, Roger Daltrey as Alfred P. Doolittle, Paxton Whitehead as Col. Pickering and Rosemary Harris as Mrs. Higgins.

The fourth annual semi-staged musical at the Bowl was a polished affair, directed with verve by Gordon Hunt, and the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra sounded luminous as it performed Robert Russell Bennett and Philip J. Lang's original 1956 orchestrations under John Mauceri's baton. Overall, this one-night-only presentation was leaps and bounds better than the strange, surrealist staging that Errico and Whitehead performed opposite Richard Chamberlain on Broadway in 1993.

Errico was recovering from vocal difficulties and didn't get to perform when that production's pre-Broadway tour passed through Los Angeles. So Sunday was her chance to let the city see what she could do, and the crowd of 12,375 applauded her transformation from grubby, tomboyish flower girl to radiant society lady under the tutelage of Lithgow's Higgins. Her musical numbers were particularly enchanting, as she turned her floating, fluttering soprano to a giddy rendition of "Wouldn't It Be Loverly?" and a woozily romantic version of "I Could Have Danced All Night."

The night, however, belonged to Lithgow, whose comically snooty demeanor and crisp diction were perfectly suited to the role of the pompous but endearingly helpless Higgins. Condescension dripped from such lines as "She's so deliciously low -- so horribly dirty," delivered with lusciously elongated vowels and consonants that Lithgow almost seemed to taste as they passed through his mouth. And he had the audience laughing knowingly at the mock gentlemanliness in such patter-style numbers as "An Ordinary Man" and "Hymn to Him" (beloved for its punch line "Why can't a woman be more like a man?").

Also perfectly cast was the Who's Daltrey as Eliza's good-natured drunk of a father. He made his entrance tumbling head over heels as he was thrown from a pub and went on to present a wonderfully earthy, character-filled performance. Gravelly voiced and yowling a convincing Cockney accent, he cavorted gamely through "With a Little Bit of Luck" and "Get Me to the Church on Time," with nothing of the rock star in his performance except the joyful raucousness of it.

Meanwhile, "Church's" dance break -- choreographed with galloping waltzes and lively step-dancing by Kay Cole -- earned some of the most enthusiastic applause of the evening.

Like Lithgow, Whitehead is known for his high-toned humor. He made a marvelous Pickering. Harris' crisp, upper-crust diction and erect bearing were similarly well matched to her role as Higgins' regal but no-nonsense mother.

Kevin Earley, a favorite romantic lead in Los Angeles, delivered in a comically nerdy turn as Eliza's secondary love interest, snorting through his dialogue scenes before turning his lustrous voice to "On the Street Where You Live," which he delivered with such power that he set the Bowl's amplification system buzzing and crackling.

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