More and more operas are adding Broadway classics to their repertoire, in part to try to attract younger (merely middle-aged) audiences. Lyric Opera has in recent years used a classic musical to close its season, with quite a bit of success. According to Lyric’s website, its 2014 production of The Sound of Music sold the most tickets of any show in its history—71,074 tickets over 30 performances. So I suppose the idea is here to stay.
My fear was that the opera’s production of Allen Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s musical My Fair Lady would be packed with big-lunged singers who’d crush its charm and spirit (see, e.g., the weighted-down 1984 Deutsche Grammophon recording of West Side Story with Kiri Te Kanawa, Jessye Norman, José Carreras, and Tatiana Troyanos and conducted by Leonard Bernstein).
I needn’t have worried. This show is a good fit for Lyric. And in hindsight I see there are many reasons for this. For one, the show already has impeccable high-brow credentials: it’s a faithful adaption of George Bernard Shaw’s 1913 social comedy Pygmalion and the screenplay Shaw penned for Gabriel Pascal’s 1938 movie version. In adapting Shaw’s original, about a gentleman phonetician, Henry Higgins, who on a bet teaches a cockney flower seller, Eliza Doolittle, to talk and act like a lady, Lerner wisely left most of the original dialogue and story intact. For another, Lerner and Loewe’s witty, intelligent, elegant score can hold its own alongside the best operas in the repertoire.
My Fair Lady is very durable. Low budget, no budget, it still flies and sings. But rarely does it soar the way it does at Lyric. And that is all the doing of director Robert Carsen and his team. Carsen directed the original production of this particular version for the Paris-based Théâtre du Châtelet in 2010. The Chicago revival is staged by Olivier Fredj, who worked with Carsen on the original. If you peruse videos of the show on YouTube, you’ll see that Fredj has re-created it with loving attention to detail. (He previously directed a revival of Carsen’s My Fair Lady at the Mariinksy Theatre in Saint Petersburg, Russia, in 2012.)
Fredj’s production combines the work of a fair number of artists from the Théâtre du Châtelet (among them choreographer Lynne Page and costume designer Anthony Powell) and a cast full of fine actor-singers, led by Richard E. Grant as Professor Higgins and Lisa O’Hare as Eliza Doolittle. The sets and costumes at Lyric are always amazing, but rarely are they as tightly tied into the story being told as they are here—they’re no mere eye candy. For example, the scenes set in and around Covent Garden comment on the social distance between Higgins’s posh set and the down-and-out world of the cockneys. The addition of a replica of Brâncuşi’s 1923 sculpture Bird in Space to the decor of Mrs. Higgins’s flat, though anachronistic (the story is set roughly ten years before the sculpture), is a sly comment on how avant-garde both mother and son are.
But the casting is what sends this show into the stratosphere. Grant and O’Hare own the roles of Higgins and Doolittle; other, better-known performers may have played them before—Rex Harrison, Julie Andrews, Audrey Hepburn—but from the moment they enter we forget the others. The show is also dotted with many wonderful supporting roles. Helen Carey is spot-on as Henry Higgins’s acid-tongued mother. And Cindy Gold constantly finds big laughs in the understated comic lines Shaw penned for Higgins’s housekeeper, Mrs. Pearce.
The Lyric production, which runs through May 21, is as true to the Broadway spirit of the 1956 hit as any revival could be: well paced, well acted, a feast for the eyes and the ears—and even for the brain. Far from smothering the show with operatic excess, the considerable resources of Chicago’s premier opera company have been used to full advantage to deliver a total theatrical experience. v