Cher Public

Fair game

I consider myself one of the last “opera snobs” who objected mightily to Lyric Opera of Chicago’s five-year-old series of adding a Broadway musical to the end of every season. Even my friend, the late great Jason McVicker, cancelled his Lyric subscription when it became clear that this was to be a once a year event. But even Jason caved, for Showboat as I recall. 

Well, as of Sunday afternoon you can consider me a convert. Only the grand forces of Lyric Opera could bring such power and life to this production of My Fair Lady, featuring a cast of 56 plus 14 dancers, 285 costumes, and a splendid orchestra of 37, doing very well by Lerner & Loewe’s classic 1956 piece.

The Robert Carsen production, which originated at Paris’ Theatre du Chatelet in 2010, is simply magnificent, particularly for the colorful and beautiful costumes designed by Anthony Powell. The set by Tim Hatley, a monochromatic grayish white, offsets these costumes and works very well in moving the action forward with style and graceful beauty.

And Carsen’s direction, recreated by revival director Olivier Fredj and particularly by Associate director Matthew Ozawa (who helmed Lyric’s fine recent productions of Don Quichotte and Nabucco) serves the piece in very remarkable, detailed ways. The pacing is always excellent, making the nearly three hour afternoon speed by.

All afternoon, I was thrilled and delighted by the inventive and near-perfect choreography of Lynne Page and her associate Rebecca Howell. The massive ensemble danced this work with astonishing precision of movement, making wonderful effects in “With a Little Bit of Luck,” the Ascot Gavotte, and “I’m Getting Married in the Morning.”

The huge cast was excellent, with one notable and problematic exception. To start with the good, the production was anchored by a stunning performance as Eliza by Lisa O’Hare. Ms. O’Hare made nary a wrong move, with her silvery lyric soprano easily and unpretentiously up to every task, from “Wouldn’t it Be Loverly” through “I Could Have Danced All Night.” Her characterization gave the performance its depth, developing a three-dimensional woman struggling to find her new life.

She did a remarkable job of slowly, ever so slowly, improving her speech under Higgins’ rigorous lessons. Most Elizas play the moment where she “gets” the “Rain in Spain” moment as a sudden revelation. Ms. O’Hare brilliantly makes minor but significant improvements in her speech during the long lesson scenes, so that the revelation of her polished speech seems a logical one. Ms. O’Hare has fine comic timing and a touching sense of vulnerability.

Most of the smaller roles are cast from strength. British baritone Donald Maxwell is a delightful Alfred Doolittle, with enough charm and wit to excuse his baser instincts. Cindy Gold mines all the humor and pathos of the housekeeper Mrs. Pearce, and Helen Carey is a delight as Mrs. Higgins, delivering her zingers with style and panache. And one could revel in the gorgeous tenor of Bryce Pinkham as Freddy, with a knockout “On The Street Where You Live.”

Lyric was also wise to cast some venerable Chicago actors in smaller roles, such as David Lively as Higgins’ butler. And four-time Jeff Award winner Peggy Roeder has a hilarious cameo turn as a very “Angry Cockney Woman”.

You will notice that I have yet to mention our Henry Higgins, the formidable actor Richard E. Grant. Grant’s (or the director’s?) approach to the role emphasizes the abusive nature of Higgins’ behavior toward Eliza, without giving us a single chance to see the reasons behind it. Grant gives us lots of flash and style, gesticulating wildly and excessively. But he never finds the heart of the character.

He comes off as excessively cruel, and, even when Higgins discovers that he’s “Grown Accustomed to Her Face”, he does not seem to have gained in maturity or empathy. When Eliza returns to him at the end, we are left wondering why. We never see any real chemistry between Higgins and Eliza, and Nicholas Le Provost’s ineffectual Pickering seems humorless and unable to temper Higgins’ nastiness. And that’s a shame. This production and Ms. O’Hare deserve a more compatible match.

The orchestra plays splendidly under the masterful hand of David Chase. All in all, it is a sumptuous musical performance despite the lack of chemistry between the leading roles. It is still a funny, charming, and very pleasant way to spend a very rainy and chilly Chicago afternoon. One piece of advice I’d like to extend—make it clearer when the first act ends.

On Sunday, the exit of Eliza and Higgins in their finery to attend the Embassy ball felt exactly like an intermission closing—numerous audience members got up and headed for the exits. Then, the Embassy ball scene started and no one was quite sure what was happening. When the act actually ended, at the end of the ball scene, Lyric wisely brought the house lights up immediately to signal the audience that this was, finally, the end of Act One.

Photo © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2017

  • Pirelli

    It would seem that the Lyric is *not* doing a radio broadcast of this production, as they *have* done for all the others so far (at least I can’t seem to find any info that they are). A shame, as I feel that over the seasons, these forays into Broadway shows have gotten quite good. (I also had a former student cast as Lun Tha in last season’s “King And I,” and he sounded wonderful.) Their first attempt was a fairly unremarkable “Oklahoma,” with uneven casting and a very stiff reading of the score by a seemingly bored conductor -- but their subsequent productions have gotten better and better. It’s a shame for those of us unable to get to Chicago that we won’t be able to at least hear this one.

  • Judy

    Once I realized that no WFMT-FM broadcasts were scheduled I contacted them. Their very quick response was that no broadcasts would occur due to “permissions.” The representative did not indicate whose permissions -- the Estates of Lerner and Loewe, GBS, Gabriel Pascal or other -- they were referring to. Sorry about this.

    • Pirelli

      All the shows they’ve done to this point are licensed by the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization -- I would assume they had arranged a deal for those broadcasts (though as far as I can tell, last season they only did the one live broadcast of The King And I, without repeating it on the stations that play the complete season on consecutive weeks in the summertime). My Fair Lady is licensed by Tams-Witmark, and perhaps they didn’t come to a viable agreement about broadcasting. Just my guess that it was them rather than the writers’ estates.

      • Judy

        I saw “My Fair Lady” on the Saturday matinee (5-20-2017) and truly enjoyed it. (Nice job by Mr. Grant. His portrayal of Henry Higgins progressed into a more finished form concerning the chemistry between the characters of Higgins and Ms. Doolittle by the end of the show’s run, 5-21-2017). Concerning licensing, Tams-Witmark was listed as holding the show’s license. Pity that there was or will be no broadcast as the orchestra was simply spectacular.

  • WindyCityOperaman

    Too bad no LOC Fair Lady broadcast. My CD collection holds not one but five (?) offerings- Original B’way, Original London (Andrews and Harrison in stereo), the Soundtrack, the ‘New’ Broadway album (1976 with Ian Richardson and Christine Andreas) and the studio pairing of Dame Kiri and Irons when she going through her phase of recording musicals-her Liza isn’t bad and arguably the best of her three “shows”. Marni Nixon’s autobio provides a lot on what she went through ghosting Audrey Hepburn in the movie. For a kick, try finding the Mexican Cast Recording of “Mi Bella Dama”-one of the cockney buskers is played by someone named Placido Domingo!

  • MisterSnow

    I am glad that opera houses are taking up these classic musicals. They are about the only place nowadays with the resources to do justice to them -- the large casts and choruses, the scenic splendor, and of course, the full orchestrations. There are few places where you can hear these scores in their full sonic glory. Encores has the orchestra, but not the sets. We can’t all travel to Paris for their revivals. Bartlett Sher’s R&H revivals have been a notable exception. I have not had the pleasure of seeing them live, but the full orchestration made quite an impact in the video (So Pac) and CD (K&I). I did see On the Town and the full orchestra was great, but I also saw the On the 20th C revival and was disappointed in the reduced orchestration after having seen the original (though the new sets were good). I am glad to hear that Brigadoon will be getting a concert version with full orchestra and what looks like a good cast, but a lot will be lost without the DeMille ballets. Brigadoon is the type of show that can really use the full resources of an opera house. Wish someone would do Kismet -- now THAT score really needs the big treatment, I had the pleasure of singing in the chorus for a Hollywood Bowl concert (conducted by Mauceri) that included the score of Kismet along with a lot of other “Arabian” stuff. It was during the summer of 1994. Acrosss town some tenors (3) were singing at the Greek Theatre.

    • Pirelli

      I essentially agree -- the biggest issue is in the casting. Even though the scores to these classic shows tend to be much more on the lyrical side, classical/opera singers are not always ideal (depends on the singer and the show), and especially when it comes to long stretches of dialogue. But if a company like LOC can find a successful balance between legit and theatre performers who can fill the bill -- and for the most part they have -- more power to them.

      The other problem tends to be in viable rep -- the familiar tried-and-true classics will always sell the best, but it would be great to see more opera companies tackle things like the American Kurt Weill shows, or Most Happy Fella, or The Golden Apple (now being done by Encores), or any other of the more obscure lush “legit” scores. But, because they want a guaranteed audience, most companies will stick only with the familiar kind of rep LOC is doing now.