There should be plenty in the new Lincoln Center production of Lerner and Loewe’s classic musical to satisfy even the most romantic theatergoers among us. From the lush score, replete with still-beautiful ballads of nostalgia and longing – “On the Street Where You Live,” “I Could Have Danced All Night,” even “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?” – to the lushly opulent sets and the beautiful period costumes, the entire production seems perfectly gauged to evoke a bygone era in which Cinderella stories could still happen – and this one, based on George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, is in some ways the Cinderella story to end them all.
In the opening scene, we meet Eliza Doolittle (Lauren Ambrose), a young woman of little education or breeding, who’s eking out a living selling flowers. Struck by her strong Cockney accent, Professor Henry Higgins (Harry Hadden-Paton) remarks to his fellow linguist, Colonel Pickering (Allan Corduner), that he could teach her to speak English better than the gentry. And when the intrepid Eliza arrives at his house to take him up on the lessons, the two gentlemen end up making a bet that they’ll be able to present her at court in six months, taking her on as a pupil and into their unlikely household. What follows is a story that’s been repeated over and over, from the original tale of Pygmalion and Galatea to Pretty Woman, as Eliza gets an education in not only proper English but also etiquette and upper-middle-class mores, receives a lovely new wardrobe, and not only wins her mentors’ bet for them but through her determination and charm wins the heart of feckless Freddy Eynsford-Hill (Jordan Donica) and quite likely that of her teacher, that “confirmed bachelor” Henry Higgins himself.
Though the show’s starring roles will forever be haunted by the memory (and the soundtrack) of Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews, Hadden-Paton brings a convincingly sharp impatience to Higgins’ curmudgeonly manner, and Ambrose gives a goofily comic touch to Eliza’s frustration with her lessons and exasperation with her situation without minimizing the struggles she’s going through. And it’s in those true-to-the-text character notes that the real story is told. Because behind the fairy tale of transformation and attraction lies a Shavian analysis of the creaky machinery of class mobility (and the lack thereof). Take Eliza’s father (brilliantly played by Norbert Leo Butz). Alfred Doolittle is a joyfully impoverished reprobate when he first appears, one of what he terms “the undeserving poor,” trying to cadge five pounds in return for his turning a blind eye to what he clearly assumes are untoward goings-on with his daughter. But his drunken philosophy so impresses Higgins that he offhandedly sets him up as a lecturer, catapulting him into a respectability that Doolittle sees, not entirely facetiously, as a burden and an imposition – albeit one he can’t give up. And, in a less comic way, his daughter undergoes a similarly unsettling transition.
Though what we may remember from My Fair Lady are yearning ballads like “Accustomed to Her Face,” the musical spends at least as much time showing the hard, frustrating and painful work behind Eliza’s achievement. From the grueling set up for “The Rain in Spain,” in which Eliza repeatedly tries – and fails – to meet Higgins’ standards of pronunciation to the agonizing indifference of “You Did It," Eliza’s efforts are at least as central to the show as the romance. The characters are at their most heated in their songs of mutual vituperation – “Just You Wait,” “Without You” and the harsher moments of “I’ve Grown Accustomed to her Face.” And like her father, but with more reason, Eliza fears that her hard-won education will leave her unfit for the world – unable to go back to her old life but not wealthy or well-connected enough for the upper-class society she’s glimpsed.
Will this production please the true romantic? In a way, it’s hard to say how any My Fair Lady could. There’s simply too much strife built into the show to be wiped away so easily at its end as Eliza makes her final choice. And despite its lush beauty and stellar performances, this version may remain too true to its origins to tie up so neatly. But then, the true romantic is a sucker for lost causes and broken hearts.