`My Fair Lady' Still Adds Up to Wonderful

The musical comedy charms and amuses, but it also engages in class and gender warfare

MY FAIR LADY. Musical by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe. At the Colonial Theatre through June 27.

PYGMALION," George Bernard Shaw's 1913 story of a Cockney flower girl's transformation from guttersnipe to society princess, is one of the most memorable plays in the theatrical repertoire.

In 1956, lyricist Alan Jay Lerner and composer Frederick Loewe worked their own transformation on Shaw's play with the musical "My Fair Lady," heightening the comedy with a host of clever singable songs, such as "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face" and "I Could Have Danced All Night." And with the help of stars Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews, the musical enjoyed a record-breaking run on Broadway.

The current revival (which will tour the West Coast and St. Louis after its Boston engagement) is deftly directed by Howard Davies. It stars Richard Chamberlain in the role of the snobbish Professor Henry Higgins and young Meg Tolin as the saucy Eliza Doolittle. It's a stunning, wonderfully entertaining production that plays up Shaw's social commentary on class and gender distinctions, making the story particularly appropriate and potent in these troubled times.

Songs such as "Why Can't A Woman Be More Like A Man?" seem more overtly sexist today than 35 years ago.

Richard Chamberlain is superb as Professor Higgins, replacing the priggish pomposity that Rex Harrison brought to the role with a self-satisfied, suavely cruel smugness. His "confirmed bachelorhood" is really a case of misogyny combined with an unreserved disdain for the lower classes. He is clever, smooth, emotionally callow, and downright obtuse in the ways of the heart, despite his intellectual brilliance.

And therein lies this production's most troubling and provocative twist. Chamberlain's characterization is so inherently unsympathetic that it is difficult to appreciate Eliza's passion for him. Even his mother, beautifully played by Dolores Sutton, finds him insufferable.

Chamberlain's Higgins softens too little too late to make Eliza's return to him at the play's end justifiable, though in this era of domestic strife, that little jab hits home particularly forcefully. (Even in the musical's original production, with a more sympathetic portrayal of Higgins, Lerner and Loewe's "happy" ending rankled Shaw; in his own play, Eliza's destiny was far more ambiguous.)

Meg Tolin, who took over the role from an injured Melissa Errico, is affecting as the rough-cut flower girl who, in the process of gaining social respectability, runs the risk of losing herself. She has a wonderful comic touch that ranges from subtlety to farce.

Tolin is hilarious in her first public appearance as the newly genteel Miss Doolittle, combining her recently acquired upper-class manners with her lower-class perspective on life. She is less convincing in the dramatic scenes. There is little clue as to her internal transformation, making her hurt and frustration at Higgins's insensitivity a bit abrupt in the second act. Tolin's singing voice is sweet and clear, though it could use more edge and spirit at times, such as in "Just You Wait."

Paxton Whitehead is totally delightful as Higgins's cohort Colonel Pickering. His comedic arsenal contains a fabulous array of facial expressions and subtly effective mannerisms.

Julian Holloway is lively and convincing as Eliza's father Alfred, and Robert Sella is ingenuous as young Freddie Hill, Eliza's ardent, slightly awkward would-be suitor.

The chorus is marvelous, with vibrant characterizations, strong voices and nimble feet, as adept at playing the stuffy souls of propriety as the drunken rabble-rousing crowd at the flower market's local watering hole. The "Loverly" quartet is a standout.

Donald Saddler's choreography is tightly structured and fluidly staged, from the elegant ambassador's ball to the commoners' crowd scene, which includes a rousing high-stepping number to "I'm Getting Married in the Morning."

Ralph Koltai's scenic design is spare and effective, often setting the scene with a single prop, such as a porch stoop or a car. Rather incongruously, Higgins's study is a surrealistic display dominated by an enormous stone head, the brain divided by criss-crossed neon lines, and a recording machine that looks straight out of an old horror film. Though it doesn't especially fit, it's a fascinating conceit.

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