In the 1950’s in America, the Eisenhower years, when “I Love Lucy,” “Ozzie and Harriet,” and “Leave It to Beaver” ruled the TV airwaves, the three most exciting words in American theatre were “My Fair Lady,” the glorious, literate musical comedy which opened on Broadway on March 15, 1956.
Audiences and critics alike were beside themselves in singing its praises: Legendary New York Times critic Walter Kerr called it “miraculous, wise, witty, and winning”; the show was an immediate sellout and became Broadway’s long-run champion (at the time). The original cast recording, which featured stars Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews, became the best-selling album of the year; when “My Fair Lady” opened in London’s West End in 1958, the young Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip attended. This does not happen often.
We can’t time travel, but we can see a lovely revival currently running at Atlanta Lyric Theatre through Sept. 3. It is directed by Scott Seidl and choreographed by Ashley Chasteen; the music director is Paul Tate, who accompanies the show on “dueling pianos” along with Bob Amar. These two gifted pianists perform in lieu of an orchestra (okay, I prefer an orchestra, but that’s because the first Broadway album I ever heard—yes, I’m that old—was “My Fair Lady,” and the sound of that album is still in my head).
You probably know that the show is based on a play by Bernard Shaw called “Pygmalion.” The adaptation and lyrics are by Alan Jay Lerner; the music is by Frederick Loewe. The musical is a delightful variation of the Cinderella story; here a Cockney flower girl named Eliza Doolittle (Galen Crawley) has her life transformed by phonetics professor Henry Higgins (Mark Bradley Miller), who bets his friend Colonel Pickering (Rob Roper) that he can turn Eliza into a lady in a flower shop by changing her speech (“An Englishman’s way of speaking absolutely classifies him”).
I shall not give you much plot because it’s quite well known, even if you haven’t seen Hollywood’s outstanding Best Picture-winning 1964 version, which starred Harrison and Audrey Hepburn as Eliza. There was a gigantic brouhaha in the entertainment community when Hepburn was chosen to play the part over Julie Andrews (“No one in the sticks has ever heard of her,” said producer Jack Warner about the decision to omit Ms. Andrews from recreating her Eliza on film.
In addition, Hollywood ghost singer Marni Nixon did Ms. Hepburn’s singing (as she did for Natalie Wood in “West Side Story”) and put a curse on both Wood and Hepburn, as neither woman was even nominated for Best Actress. Further irony: When Julie Andrews won an Oscar that year for “Mary Poppins,” it was widely considered a consolation prize for losing the “Fair Lady” part. Such are the machinations of La La Land.
I mention these things as background to give you the happy news that the Lyric’s Eliza, Galen Crawley, is both a terrific actor and superb singer, and the best single reason to see this production. She enchants, first as the “deliciously low, horribly dirty” (Higgins’ words) Cockney girl struggling to transform herself under Higgins’ relentless instruction; and then, as she emerges in a beautiful gown to attend the Embassy Ball, speaking the Queen’s English, we melt.
For “My Fair Lady” to work, the audience has to fall in love with Eliza (even if Higgins won’t—but that’s another story). And thanks to the luminous Ms. Crawley, we do. She’s magnetic, and every gesture, note, and move she makes is flawless. She’s funny, feisty, and vulnerable; a major talent.
There are some marvelous supporting roles, each played with panache: Rob Roper’s Colonel Pickering; Chris Saltalamacchio’s charming Freddy, who sings “On the Street Where You Live” beautifully; George Deavours’ Alfred P. Doolittle, Eliza’s father, who teaches us about middle-class morality and how to “Get Me to the Church on Time”; Karen Howell’s Mrs. Higgins—an elegant, funny performance; Kristin Kundert’s Mrs. Pierce, Professor Higgins’ wise, kind housekeeper.
I must report that Mark Bradley Miller’s Henry Higgins is a puzzlement to me; the professor has vigor and fire; and passion for his profession, but I did not find any of those things in Mr. Miller’s performance. The actor has polish but no punch. Higgins is a natural bully but not purposely unkind; I feel Mr. Miller understands that, but his performance felt phoned-in; it was as though many of his lines were not worth the effort it takes to give a vibrant, fun performance.
Every once in a while some of Higgins “own spark of divine fire” would make an appearance, but then it would vanish. Mr. Miller has impressive credits, so his lackluster work here is a mystery. Why didn’t director Seidl insist on more? It’s an enigma.
Finally, the ensemble of singers and dancers is marvelous; they are in-the-moment living proof that there are indeed no small parts, only small actors, as the old saw goes. There are quite a few of them, and their names are in the program; if you go, you’ll see what I mean.
Amanda Edgerton West’s costumes are lovely. The show, with one intermission, lasts almost three hours; seems a bit long. Has one of the most lauded shows of the 20th Century become a bit dated? You must decide, but when you see and hear Ms. Crawley sing “I Could Have Danced All Night,” or “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?” you’ll be very glad you’re there.
For tickets and information, visit atlantalyric.com.