Broadway’s “My Fair Lady” takes you to showtune heaven in a new production that’s both opulent and daring.
But not every risk pays off equally in the revival at the Vivian Beaumont at Lincoln Center.
Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s remarkable 1956 musical, based on George Bernard Shaw’s play and Gabriel Pascal’s film “Pygmalion,” revolves around the clash of class, culture and gender.
The show is wall-to-wall hummable hits — from “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?” and “The Rain in Spain” to “Get Me to the Church on Time” and “Without You.”
Harry Hadden-Paton, Lauren Ambrose and Allan Corduner kick up their heels as Henry Higgins, Eliza Doolittle and Col. Pickering in “My Fair Lady.”
New York audiences who’ve seen recent productions of “The King and I” and “South Pacific” have grown accustomed to director Bartlett Sher’s ability to breathe fresh and thoughtful life into classics. He does it again — mostly.
But the show also jars. Primarily that’s due to casting a younger Henry Higgins (Harry Haddon-Paton), the upper-crust professor, and an older Eliza Doolittle (Lauren Ambrose), the naive Cockney flower girl he bets he can change — and does.
If the idea was to make the story that unfolds in 1913 London sexier, no such luck. Higgins’ withering comments aimed directly at the poor petal pusher can’t be dismissed as words from an older blowhard who’s been around so long he’s just set in his ways. As such, his abusive mean streak is widened.
Eliza Doolittle (Lauren Ambrose, left) finds a surprise ally in Mrs. Higgins (Diana Rigg).
The show isn’t an overt romance, but the heat that can be summoned gets the cold-shower treatment.
Nonetheless Hadden-Paton, known for playing Bertie on “Downton Abbey,” cuts a strong stage presence and sings handsomely. He’s particularly fine on the wistful “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face.”
Ambrose, of “Six Feet Under” fame, is marvelous start to finish. She’s also grimy, graceful and grand as required by the role played on Broadway by Julie Andrews and film by Audrey Hepburn. Ambrose’s bright shimmering singing makes “I Could Have Danced All Night” a giddy highlight. Her perfectly modulated acting turns miscommunication at the Ascot racing scene into a hoot.
Norbert Leo Butz, center, leads “Get Me to the Church on Time.”
As other men in her life, two-time Tony winner Norbert Leo Butz blusters brilliantly as her no-good dad, Jordan Donica delights as the besotted Freddy — who gets the plum assignment of performing “On the Street Where You Live” — and Allan Corduner lends a bit of empathy as Colonel Pickering. And Diana Rigg, who oozes smarts, is in a league of her own as Henry’s wise mother.
The large orchestra and original arrangements sound magnificent. The production is loverly — thanks to chic costumes by Catherine Zuber, flattering lighting by Donald Holder, fine-tuned sound by Marc Salzberg and fluid, if busy, scenery by Michael Yeargan.
The embassy waltz is elegantly light on its feet as choreographed by Christopher Gattelli. “Get Me to the Church On Time” goes from rousing to too weird for its own good.
When all is said and sung and done, the show finds a conclusion to love. Without spoiling the exclamation point Sher affixes at the end of the show, suffice it to say the confidence to stride into one’s own independence can make walls vanish.
When “My Fair Lady” is over, this Eliza is just getting started.