"My Fair Lady" passes the supreme test for any revival of a supremely successful work. Its memorable moments seem as captivating as ever. Its lesser passages do not pall.
At the Uris Theater, the production of the Alan Jay Lerner-Frederick Loewe version of George Bernard Shaw's "Pygmalion" enjoys some very special advantages. First and foremost, of course, is the return of Rex Harrison to the role he created in 1956 -- adding a new depth of feeling to the high-comedy style and wit that always distinguished his playing of the egocentric phoneticist. The other warmly welcomed veteran from the first "My Fair Lady" is Cathleen Nesbitt, a serenely wise and graceful Mrs. Higgins.
In the best tradition of theatrical legends a la "Forty-Second Street," understudy Nancy Ringham went into the leading role of Eliza Doolittle just before opening night when Cheryl Kennedy was indisposed and had to withdraw from the cast. At the final preview, which I attended, the personable Miss Ringham demonstrated not only her trouper's spirit but also the musical comedy skills requisite for this demanding part. A newcomer to New York, she is appealing and spirited as the Covent Garden cockney flower girl whose transformation Professor Higgins undertakes on a wager and with the reluctant aid of his unapproving housekeeper (Marian Baer).
If it lacks the pristine quality, the virtual perfection in every department, of the original production, this "My Fair Lady" is an amply rewarding entertainment. As previously noted, Mr. Harrison's performance balances the comic aplomb of Higgins's ineffable self-centeredness with a genuine horror of the "verbal class distinction" that reinforces a caste system. Beneath the bravura of the portrayal lies a solid intellectual conviction. When Higgins and the chivalrous Colonel Pickering of Jack Gwillim join Eliza's "The Rain in Spain" with "By George, she's got it!" the audience revels in the excitement over what has been achieved. It is an emotional high.
The fine Shavian relish with which the libretto is acted finds its counterpart in the first-rate musical performance conducted by Franz Allers. Whether in solos or in ensembles, the vocal work is worthy of the melodic charm of Mr. Loewe's tunes and of Mr. Lerner's witty lyrics.
Musical pleasures abound: In such numbers as Eliza's lilting "Wouldn't It Be Loverly" and "I Could Have Danced All Night" or her furious "Just You Wait"; in Higgins's "I'm An Ordinary Man" and "A Hymn To Him" or the haunting "I've Grown Accustomed To Her Face"; and in Alfred Doolittle's "With A Little Bit Of Luck" and "Get Me To The Church On Time," with Milo O'Shea kicking up his heels as raffish and rascally as you please. Nicholas Wyman makes the most of Freddy's lushly sentimental "On The Street Where You Live." These are really some of the highlights.
There are times when one feels that director Patrick Garland has let the performance get a bit out of hand -- perhaps to ensure that no comic points were swallowed up in some of the larger auditoriums played in the course of the show's 11-month tour. Whatever the cause, the result is a certain noticeable broadness.
The handsome Oliver Smith scenery shows some of the effects of wear and tear. The costumes on this occasion are credited to Cecil Beaton and co-costume designer John David Ridge, but presumably such creations as the amusingly gorgeous formal wear for "Ascot Gavotte" are pure Beaton. The musical numbers were staged and choreographed by Crandall Diehl (after Hanya Holm). Ken Billington designed the lighting. As is too often the case in these days of miked performances, the amplification occasionally suffers from distortion.
Yet "My Fair Lady" remains one of the great treasures of the Broadway musical theater. It's a treat to have it back in town again.