Refreshing Revival Of `My Fair Lady'

MY FAIR LADY Book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner. Music by Frederick Loewe. Starring Richard Chamberlain. At the Virginia Theatre.

`MY Fair Lady,'' starring Richard Chamberlain, has touched down on Broadway after a national tour, and if this revival won't erase memories of the original production or the 1964 film, it displays an audacity that is refreshing for the revival of a musical war horse.

The adventurousness could be attributed to the British director Howard Davies, celebrated for his stylized productions of ``Les Liaisons Dangereuses'' and ``Pygmalion.'' He has reconceived ``My Fair Lady'' for a darker time, a time when the war between the sexes has reached nuclear proportions. When this Henry Higgins threatens to throttle Eliza, you believe he'll actually do it. Davies, who has talked of ``deconstructing'' the musical and applying ``an expressionistic overlay,'' has of course done nothing of the kind. Except for certain surrealistic visual touches and an overall darker tone, this is basically a faithful version of the show.

If the look of the show is at times pretentious and overconceived, as if this were a production by some ambitious college troupe, it at least adds an air of freshness to a musical that can suffer from overfamiliarity.

``My Fair Lady'' is, of course, one of the greatest musicals ever written. No production could fail to entertain, given the glories of Alan Jay Lerner's words and Frederick Loewe's music. Songs like ``Wouldn't It be Loverly,'' ``With a Little Bit of Luck,'' ``The Rain in Spain,'' ``On the Street Where You Live,'' ``Get Me to the Church on Time,'' and ``I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face,'' have entered the basic vocabulary of the American musical theater, and they are still thrilling.

Richard Chamberlain, making his first stage appearance in years, is a credible Henry Higgins, delivering a skillful, unflattering portrait of the ultimate misogynist and not trading on the audience affection by pandering or being cutesy. At times, however, his vocal inflections are uncannily similar to Rex Harrison's, and the performance also has a forced quality that doesn't compare to Harrison's effortlessness. But on the whole, it is well modulated and fulfills the comic promise of the part.

The relatively unknown Melissa Errico has a lovely singing voice and a charming stage presence - if this is not an Eliza we love it is certainly one we respect. And we can also respect the performances of Paxton Whitehead as Colonel Pickering (a constant delight on the New York stage for many years, his very presence onstage was reassuring), Julia Holloway as Alfred Doolittle, and Dolores Sutton, scoring big laughs as Henry's mother. Unlike the last big star revival on Broadway, ``Camelot,'' this production delivered quality acting in roles big and small.

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