at the Chicago Theatre

“Who knows?” Alan Jay Lerner said to Herman Levin, producer of My Fair Lady’s 1956 Broadway premiere, as they tried to pinpoint the reason for their creation’s phenomenal success. “It may have been the chandeliers that did it.”

Lerner was joking, of course (or half-joking, in the superstitious way of theater folk). He knew that the show he and Frederick Loewe had written owed much of its enormous appeal to the witty dialogue and comically complex characters of its source, George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, and to the way librettist Lerner and composer Loewe (with crucial guidance from director Moss Hart and star Rex Harrison) had preserved the intelligence of Shaw’s play while exposing its passionate subtext in delicious songs (and some Lerner-written dialogue as Shavian as anything Shaw ever wrote).

But there were also the chandeliers, and the opulence they epitomized; Oliver Smith’s dazzling sets and Cecil Beaton’s ingenious costumes contributed hugely to My Fair Lady’s original production. “Nothing impresses an audience more or produces a more dependable, spontaneous burst of applause than to see a chandelier appearing from on high,” wrote Lerner in his autobiography, The Street Where I Live, issuing a dictum surely burned forever into Andrew Lloyd Webber’s brain. “In the finale of [My Fair Lady’s] act one there were three.”

There is one chandelier in the My Fair Lady playing through this weekend at the Chicago Theatre, but it scarcely makes an impression. In jarring contrast to the lavishly decorated auditorium in which it’s playing, there’s nothing in Ralph Koltai’s set that approaches the sumptuous elegance with which the original Smith designs evoked 1912 London. Instead, Koltai has delivered a drab, semiabstract visual scheme whose most spectacular feature is a gigantic sculpted bust–a bald, androgynous head whose cranium is illuminated from within, presumably to symbolize the story’s insistence on the primacy of the intellect. Misogynistic phonetics professor Henry Higgins molds cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle into a lady by prodding, coaxing, and bullying her into proper use of the English language; unlike the mythic figure who gave Pygmalion its name, Higgins shapes his Galatea into a woman by refusing (and fearing) to love her.

This enormous head, looking like a visage out of some science-fiction vision of a dehumanized future (George Lucas’s film THX-1138 springs to mind) may represent the essence of Eliza, shorn of cosmetic clues to her social status–the guttersnipe’s tangled hair and dirty face or the beautiful coiffure and delicately creamy complexion that signal her transformation into a society swell. The show’s climax–when Eliza, having stormed out of the overbearing Higgins’s house, tentatively returns to try to forge a life with him–doesn’t take place in the professor’s book-lined study, as Lerner and Loewe intended; instead, Eliza appears from behind the huge head, the centerpiece of an otherwise bare stage. Higgins speaks his famous final line–“Eliza? Where the devil are my slippers?”–sitting with his student on the base of the bizarre bust, the two of them laughing in bemused mutual self-understanding. Or is it at the silly statue? In any case, it would take most people an awfully long time to grow accustomed to that face.

Not that My Fair Lady can’t bear rethinking. After all, it is itself a rethinking of Shaw, who insisted that Eliza would never have returned to Higgins. Any director could have overseen an “authentic” re-creation of the 1956 designs and staging; British director Howard Davies deserves credit for trying to bring new notions to a classic.

But except for the brilliant writing–Shaw’s hilarious and dazzling dialectics of course, but also Lerner and Loewe’s inspired use of song to explore and expand on key elements of the original play’s characterizations–this My Fair Lady is a disappointment. Part of the problem at this point is lack of texture in most of the acting; that may improve with time, since the touring production is barely a month old. But a more fundamental flaw is in the conception itself, a sort of postmodernist approach that’s more destructive than deconstructive. Trying to play the elegant script and rapturous score against Koltai’s cold, cheesy-looking sets–including a Covent Garden flower market that omits the opera house in favor of stacks of warehouse pallets just waiting for a forklift, and a sterile embassy ballroom that looks like a Tribeca art gallery–just doesn’t work. The more intimate scenes work better–in these the audience can focus on the actors and ignore the stage–but almost anything involving use of the space (including the usually surefire dance numbers, “With a Little Bit of Luck” and “Get Me to the Church on Time”) falls flat. The one exception is the “Ascot Gavotte” scene, in which aristocratic horse-race watchers are lowered from the sky to hover surrealistically in front of a gauzy pastel sky. (I guess that’s what they mean by being above it all.)

As Higgins, Richard Chamberlain relies on lots of activity to convey character–not a surprising choice for this star of TV miniseries and mediocre action movies. The result is a quasi-military Higgins who’s not particularly credible as a man devoted to the power of the intellect; but at least Chamberlain looks nice, sings well, can handle the language, and has enough star power to boost the box office (if not to fill the Chicago’s sprawling stage). Meg Tolin, the understudy who went on for Melissa Errico at the performance I saw, displays a lovely voice and some fire in the later scenes, though her early cockney comedy falls flat. Robert Sella sings strongly as Freddie, the lovestruck gent who croons “On the Street Where You Live”–that brilliant ballad whose simultaneously eloquent and adolescent feeling Sella brings out nicely. Dolores Sutton is effectively brisk as Higgins’s mother–her tart dismissal of her son’s sexist attitudes won applause at the show I saw–but as Eliza’s amoral dad, Julian Holloway is a pallid stand-up-comic substitute for his father, the master clown Stanley Holloway, who created the role.

The only unmitigated success is Paxton Whitehead in the small but tasty role of Colonel Pickering, the other half of Higgins’s bachelor household. With his basset-hound countenance and perpetual air of slight distraction, Whitehead subtly highlights the best and the worst of Pickering, and by reflection his flamboyant housemate–the commitment to intellectual aspiration as the key to the quality of life, and the smug assumption that “quality of life” is measured by the yardstick of the English patriarchal class system. Generally regarded by audiences (and by Eliza) as the kindly bloke in contrast to Higgins’s crusty bully, Pickering is actually just as much of a shit as Higgins–only more passive–and Whitehead doesn’t avoid that aspect by overplaying the codgerly charm, as Robert Coote did in the original show. Whether he’s speaking in his droll, drawling bass voice or merely reacting to the verbal battles waged by Higgins and Eliza, Whitehead is stylish and masterful, chewing the scenery with the deadly delicacy of Lady Bracknell nibbling a cucumber sandwich. If only this scenery were worth chewing.