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