I find that when going to the theatre to see a new show, it's best to have few expectations. I went to see "My Fair Lady" at the Ahmanson with no expectations at all, just one strong hope: that the live show would prove better than the film, as musicals usually (but not always) do. My wish came true.
As soon as the the rose-covered painting rose on turn-of-the-century Covent Garden, I knew I was in for a visual and musical treat. Anthony Ward's beautifully detailed set filled the stage and nearly distracted me from the action several times. Ward's genius also extends to the costumes: I nearly cried when Eliza Doolittle walked out onto the Ascot set in that magnificent black and purple dress. The cast is fabulous, especially the multi-talented ensemble. The musical highlight of the night for me was "A Little Bit of Luck," performed by the ensemble and led by Eliza Doolittle's father Alfred. The ensemble's raucous dance, with trash can lids on their feet and hands for percussive power, was a loud and appropriate testament to the culture of the working-class English of the time. I was beyond pleased to find Tim Jerome's Alfred P. Doolittle a truly funny character who is not bound by the comic relief stereotype, but rather a scene-stealer who brings life to the amoral dustman and his working-class friends.
Unfortunately, the comic relief turned out to be the young man enamored with Eliza, Freddy Eynsford-Hill, played by Justin Bohon. Perhaps the film's Freddy spoiled me: he was handsome, charming, and a man Eliza would seriously consider for herself. This Freddy was anything but. While cute in a nerdy way, Bohon's Freddy often came off as silly, forgettable and hardly worth a second glance from the object of his affection. Christopher Cazenove's Professor Henry Higgins also surprised me. While his take on the character has strong echoes of Rex Harrison's portrayal, he creates his own Higgins, one who, unlike Harrison's, truly becomes human through his relationship with Eliza.
At last we come to the star of the show. Lisa O'Hare is simply fabulous as Eliza Doolittle. She makes a clear and smooth transformation from brash flower girl to polished lady. To my delight, she makes Eliza Doolittle her own while drawing inspiration from the original, Julie Andrews, and the film's star, Audrey Hepburn. Like most of her principal castmates, she has great comedic timing and is consistently adorable.
The one problem I had with Ms. O'Hare was her interpretation of a few numbers, including "I Could Have Danced All Night." Her voice is beautiful, and her soprano seems to be effortless, but there needs to be more of it. I felt as though Ms. O'Hare was teasing the audience, not letting go until the very last minute. "I Could Have Danced All Night" is Eliza's big number; Ms. O'Hare should use it as a chance to show off what she can do.
More importantly, O'Hare's Eliza is the perfect match for Cazenove's Professor Higgins. They are equals on that stage, in acting power and in sheer presence. Thank goodness there is a suitable ending to the show to illustrate that fact.
My Fair Lady closes Sunday