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"My Fair Lady" - now and forever

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The popularity of the lovely musical that in the movie version starred Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison does not seem to diminish with time. This story is running on Friday's edition of The New York Times.... B-)


I hope it does well at the box office! :)


March 9, 2007


Frasier Is Tutor to Eliza for One Loverly Evening



Watch your purse if you?re heading to Lincoln Center this weekend. A boisterous clan of street toughs, braying away in incomprehensible Cockney, has taken up residence in Avery Fisher Hall.


Happily, they may be distracted by the presence of more immediate prey, the elegant swells from the Ascot races, in their dainty accents and picture hats. The seriously mixed company also includes a couple of recognizable faces from the land of television comedy, and an actor acclaimed for his Willy Loman and James Tyrone onstage. Shining from the still center of the commotion is an entirely enchanting young Broadway star ? they still make them, believe it or not, albeit in a strictly limited edition ? playing a guttersnipe who makes the grade as a grand lady.


By now musical theater lovers probably need not be told that the business at hand is a concert staging of the 1956 show ?My Fair Lady,? beloved above all for its top-drawer score by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe. So an equally important participant in this oddly assembled but ultimately lovable enterprise is the New York Philharmonic, making one of its rare forays into the Broadway songbook under the nimble baton of Rob Fisher, former maestro of the Encores! series at City Center.


The visitors from Sitcom City are Kelsey Grammer, formerly of ?Frasier,? who plays the high-handed phonetician Henry Higgins, and Charles Kimbrough, of ?Murphy Brown,? as his upper-crust sidekick, Colonel Pickering. Brian Dennehy, who has suffered and sacrificed on Broadway as Messrs. Loman and Tyrone, is incongruously cutting up as Alfred P. Doolittle, the father of the guttersnipe. And confirming her status as the most accomplished Broadway ing?nue to emerge in years is Kelli O?Hara, previously seen in ?The Light in the Piazza? and ?The Pajama Game,? undertaking the role of Eliza Doolittle for the first time ? and, if there is a benevolent spirit presiding anywhere in the vicinity of Broadway, please not the last.


It was perhaps to be feared that the man who arguably deserves the most credit for the success of the evening, the venerated George Bernard Shaw, would come off worst. Concert versions of Broadway musicals are fairly commonplace by now, but ?My Fair Lady? is not really a standard-issue stage musical; it?s a Shaw play in which music has been inserted with craft and care.


Taking another crack at the material after an abortive first effort (Rodgers and Hammerstein, among others, had also passed on the project as a nonstarter), Lerner and Loewe hit upon the idea of leaving the bones of the play intact, and simply making musical scenes out of the bits Shaw didn?t bother to write. The result was a musical in which the highly literate dialogue (mostly Shaw?s) dances and sings with a vigor to match the music, and the lyrics have the rhythmic variation of spoken speech.


Now listening to a Shaw play performed in a concert hall could be compared to hearing chamber music in a football stadium. And since the plot of ?Pygmalion? turns on Henry Higgins?s fervid belief that the English language deserves to be handled with the utmost care, the combination of amplification and the chilly acoustics of Avery Fisher Hall seemed particularly cruel, at least at the outset of the evening. But sympathetic ears can perform their own surreptitious feats of sound design. Long before Eliza and Henry were wrestling over her errant vowels and absent consonants, mine had tuned out the traces of an echo that at first robbed Shaw?s language of its natural sparkle.


Broadway purists inclined to raise an eyebrow at the presence of a sitcom star in the celebrated role of Henry Higgins should consider the obvious similarities between the persnickety professor and the Seattle radio therapist so memorably portrayed by Mr. Grammer in ?Frasier.? Both are priggish fellows with pedagogical streaks, inclined to self-satisfaction. And Frasier and his brother, Niles, may be the most cultivated speakers of English ever to consort with a studio audience. (Incidentally ?Frasier? fans could hit a trifecta in New York this weekend by also catching John Mahoney in ?Prelude to a Kiss? and David Hyde Pierce at a preview of ?Curtains.?)


So Mr. Grammer?s graceful and witty performance really should not have been a surprise. Clearly relishing Higgins?s gift for colorful invective, Mr. Grammer also brought a warming note of near-buffoonery to the role, and never lost his way in the tricky terrain of the songs, which Lerner and Loewe cunningly shaped to disguise the absence of sustained vocalizing. I?m even inclined to think that Mr. Grammer?s vocal range, encompassing everything from a deep baritonal rumble to a petulant whinny, might exceed that of the role?s creator, Rex Harrison.


Mr. Kimbrough excelled in physical comedy, particularly in the scene that ignites the evening, when Higgins and Pickering join Eliza in a dance of abandon on the subject of the weather patterns in Spain. Mr. Dennehy may not be the most idiomatic Cockney the role of Doolittle p?re will ever see, but he made up in enthusiasm what he lacked in authenticity, and proved a spry if artless dancer leading the troops in ?Get Me to the Church on Time.?


Ably filling out the other primary roles were Philippe Castagner, a gifted operatic tenor, as the besotted Freddy Eynsford-Hill, who sang ?On the Street Where You Live? with pure, bright tone; and Marni Nixon, who did not get to sing at all, alas, but was a gracious presence as Mrs. Higgins. (You?ll recall that when Audrey Hepburn opened her mouth to sing in the movie, Ms. Nixon?s voice was heard.)


Fully staged by James Brennan, with ample choreography by Peggy Hickey and elegant Cecil Beaton-derived costumes by Gail Baldoni, the evening moved along briskly. (David Ives?s concert adaptation shaved away at Shaw with generally good results, although a few transitions seemed rough.) Mr. Fisher and the Philharmonic did themselves proud, delivering the score with a plush sound that, as is often the case in these circumstances, drew attention to the intricacy and wit of the orchestrations by Robert Russell Bennett and Philip J. Lang.


Finally, it would be hard to overestimate the contribution of Ms. O?Hara. The bright purity and richness of her soprano ideally suit Eliza?s songs, and her musicianship is superb. Even so, ?My Fair Lady? can seem synthetic and bloated if Eliza hits the notes without capturing your heart. Dramatically as well as musically Ms. O?Hara?s performance was touched with warmth, humor, spirit and true delicacy of feeling. When she gave voice to a mixture of all of these, in that soaring song about the thrill of discovery, ?I Could Have Danced All Night,? you instantly knew just what this excitable little flower girl was singing about. This was the sound of pure joy. And what a joy it was to hear.




Book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner; music by Frederick Loewe; adapted from ?Pygmalion,? the play by George Bernard Shaw and the motion picture by Gabriel Pascal; directed by James Brennan; conducted by Rob Fisher; executive producer, Mat?as Tarnopolsky; producer, Thomas Z. Shepard; choreographed by Peggy Hickey; concert adaptation by David Ives; sets by Ray Klausen; lighting by Ken Billington; costumes by Gail Baldoni; sound by Peter Fitzgerald; production stage manager, Peter Hanson. Presented by the New York Philharmonic, Lorin Maazel, music director. At the Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, 10 Lincoln Center Plaza at 65th Street; (212) 875-5030. Through tomorrow, March 10. Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes.


WITH: Kelli O?Hara (Eliza Doolittle), Philippe Castagner (Freddy Eynsford-Hill), Charles Kimbrough (Colonel Pickering), Kelsey Grammer (Henry Higgins), Joe Grifasi (Harry), Michael J. Farina (Jamie), Brian Dennehy (Alfred P. Doolittle), Meg Bussert (Mrs. Pearce), Marni Nixon (Mrs. Higgins), Tim Jerome (Zoltan Karpathy) and the New York Choral Artists and the ?My Fair Lady? Dancers.



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