Lincoln Center’s ‘Fair Lady’ is a first-class revival

Jonathan Grunert, Madeline Powell and John Adkison in “My Fair Lady” at the Citizens Bank Opera House. Photo: Jeremy Daniel

By Rich Fahey

BOSTON – Local theater-goers were treated in recent years to national tours of two acclaimed musical revivals first staged at the Lincoln Center Theater in New York City: “South Pacific” and “The King & I,” both presented by Broadway in Boston at the Citizens Bank Opera House.

Wouldn’t it be loverly if a third acclaimed revival, which garnered 10 Tony nominations in 2018, showed up here as well?

It has. Lincoln Center’s production of “My Fair Lady,” directed by Bartlett Sher,  is now at the Citizens Bank Opera House, and indeed it is loverly, a grand, glorious re-telling of the Lerner & Loewe classic that has been delighting audiences for 67 years. The musical is based on George Bernard Shaw’s novel “Pygmalion,” featuring music by Frederick Loewe, with book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner.

This version has flower girl Eliza Doolittle (Madeline Powell) recast as someone seemingly set to answer a burning question once and for all. Previous productions of the show failed to clarify a rather ambiguous ending that didn’t seem to answer the question if indeed, sometime after the final curtain, Eliza got together with her language tutor, Professor Henry Higgins (Jonathan Grunert).

The question is valid, given that here Grunert is much younger than others who have played the role and Powell, a fiery redhead, is in her first national tour and is only two years out of college. In the way she approaches Higgins, then quickly waves him off, striding confidently away into whatever future awaits her at the final curtain.

Shaw, after writing “Pygmalion,” went to great lengths to say the two should not be together in the end and the way the Lincoln Center productions ends leaves little room for doubt how Sher and Co. saw it.  After all, it has been many years since we required our musicals to have such an ending.

After apparently settling that often-asked question Grunert, unlike the “speak sing” of other Henrys, makes it a point to sing every note of the glorious score.

Richard Coleman, Michael Hegarty and Kevin D. O’Neil in “My Fair Lady.” Photo: Jeremy Daniel

Alas, Professor Higgins is a musical anti-hero. He is bright and clever, but also arrogant, rude, sexist, and odious. Thus, he must be able to convey a certain charm and warmth that would allow Eliza to believe she may have a future with him in her life after their work together is over. It’s a hill he doesn’t seem to have climbed.

Powell, despite her youth and relative inexperience, is up to the task in one of the more difficult roles in the musical theater canon, transforming from a caterwauling Cockney flower girl to a stunning English lady.

John Adkison’s Col. Henry Pickering is a noble, good-natured sort who tries to smooth out Higgins’s rough edges when it comes to his stormy dealings with Eliza.

Madeline Brennan has some nice moments as Higgins’ beleaguered housekeeper, Mrs. Pearce.

Nathan Haltiwanger is a winning Freddy Eynsford-Hill. He longs for Eliza, but his main task here  is to do justice to “On the Street Where You Live,” quite simply one of the more beautiful show tunes ever composed.

This is no ordinary tour. The production values are breath-taking, from the scenic design  by Michael Yeargen to Catherine Zuber’s Tony-winning costume design, David Andrews Rogers’ flawless music direction, Donald Holder’s lighting, and the sound design by Marc Salzburg and Beth Lake.  Rogers’ orchestra is in perfect balance with the vocals, thanks to Salzburg and Lake’s work.

Yeargen’s most impressive work comes with a two-story library that slides in and out; it is dark and polished, detailed, and reinforces the air of seriousness and purpose as Higgins slowly but surely transforms Eliza into a lady.

Tony-winning choreographer Christopher Gatelli (“Newsies”) has made the production numbers joys to behold. That includes the more subtle ones such as “Wouldn’t it be Loverly?” as Eliza muses with her Cockney colleagues what life could be like, and “The Embassy Waltz,” as Eliza makes her debut in society.

Michael Hegerty is simply wonderful as Alfred P. Doolittle, Liza’s wastrel father who, with the aid of pals Harry (Kevin D. O’Neil) and Jamie (Richard Coleman),  explains his philosophy of life in the first act number “With a Little Bit of Luck” and then is equally eloquent in the pull-out-all-the-stops manic chaos of Act II’s “Get Me to the Church on Time.”

Gatelli has upped the bawdiness factor in that number: Cue the chorus line of male dancers in drag.

While this show was recast for its national tour, all of the elements that made this production a success on Broadway – the fifth time the show has been presented on Broadway – have arrived intact, and the result is a first-class presentation of a treasured classic.

Broadway in Boston presents Troika Entertainment’s Lincoln Center Theater Production of “My Fair Lady.” Directed by Bartlett Sher. At the Citizens Bank Opera House through April 30.