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‘My Fair Lady’ energizes and excites at Lincoln Center

Laura Benanti in the radiant revival of "My Fair Lady". (Photo Courtesy of Youtube.com).

Josh Rittberg

Arts and Culture Editor

Lincoln Center Theater’s lavish production of My Fair Lady tells the story of a scrappy and driven young woman named Eliza Doolittle (Laura Benanti). Speech professor, Henry Higgins (Harry Hadden-Paton) bets his good friend, Colonel Pickering (Michael X. Martin) that he can turn Eliza, a dingy flower girl, into a high lady of society. What starts out as an amusing pet project for Higgins deepens as he becomes quite fond of Eliza. At the heart of the musical, and this particular production, is the journey of Eliza and her budding relationship with Henry Higgins.

Laura Benanti gives an elegant and thrilling performance as the feisty Eliza Doolittle. She sings Lerner and Lowe’s gorgeous score with infectious spirit and a soaring operatic range. In Benanti’s portrayal of this iconic character, Eliza is a strong woman who wants a better life for herself, and intends to get it. The actress handles the transformation from a peasant to a respectable member of society with great humor and energy. Benanti brings her natural comedic chops to this role and mimes hysterical physicality throughout. One of the highlights is when Paton’s Higgins puts marbles into Eliza’s mouth as an exercise to help her speech skills improve. Benanti milks this comedic moment and therefore makes the already hysterical book by Alan Jay Lerner even more hilarious. Benanti’s Eliza is confident in herself at every turn, and is no longer just a toy of Higgins. This acting choice by Benanti truly turns this classic role into a hero for the ‘Me Too’ generation. Benanti’s performance as Eliza is one for the ages, and is a beautiful case of an actress in the right role at the right time.

Harry Hadden-Paton gives a tour de force performance as Professor Henry Higgins. While this role is usually one played by someone of a much older age, Paton’s youth adds a sexy and spry energy to this wound up professor. Being that the character is a wordsmith, Paton brings great expression and comedy out of every syllable of Lerner and Loewe’s patter songs for the character. He shares excellent chemistry with Benanti. Their scenes together are a delight as he bounces off Benanti’s Eliza with humorous quips and facial expressions. Paton’s Higgins is a man who begins the musical quite arrogant, sexist and full of himself. This is demonstrated in the song “I’m an Ordinary Man” when he sings, “Let a woman in your life and you’re plunging in a knife.” The arrogance Paton brings out in the character’s early scenes make his self-growth even more rewarding. Through Eliza, Paton’s’ Higgins becomes a bit more open hearted. While he still has a bit of arrogance, the character throughout develops a sense of empathy that is seen in the blissful song, “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face.” The tenderness and vulnerability Paton brings out in Higgins for this number is startling and heartbreaking. Paton’s’ Higgins is remarkably well developed and is one of the strongest performances of the evening.

Danny Burstein is an absolute delight as Eliza’s father, Alfred P. Doolittle. Although the character has limited stage time, Burnstein truly makes the most out of all his moments as Eliza’s charming scoundrel of a father. He is a duster, who like his daughter, is trying to get wealth and something for himself. His two numbers, “With a Little Bit of Luck” and “Get Me to The Church on Time”, particularly the latter, manage to stop the show. Burstein’s jubilant wit and showmanship bring a welcome sense of energy to the role.

Michael X. Martin is a very strong and likable Colonel Pickering. Although not as boisterous of a character, Martin’s Pickering brings empathy to Benanti’s Eliza and serves as a great companion to Paton’s’ Higgins. Rosemary Harris gives humor and elegance to the role of Higgins’ mother. Harris brings a lovely sense of class to the role, and also brings a welcome sense of humor to this dignified woman. Linda Mugleston also gets great humor out of Henry’s maid, Mrs. Pearce. Christian Dante White is adorably naïve as Freddy Eynsford-Hill. His blissful rendition of “On the Street Where You Live” is enough to even make the most cynical theatregoer swoon. The rest of the cast is uniformly fantastic and are the very example of pure class and elegance.

The creative elements of this production are equally as strong. Bartlett Sher’s smart direction makes the wise decision of putting Eliza’s story front and center. This choice gives the character an empowerment that is positively modern and feminist. He also makes a change to the ending of the musical that roots this piece for a contemporary audience. He has such trust and love for this material which carries through in every inch of this show. Michael Yeargan’s towering sets, particularly the grand and jaw dropping mansion of Henry Higgins, impresses in its sheer depth and detail. Donald Holder’s lighting is very pretty, yet also precise as it paints the actors and various locales perfectly. Catherine Zuber’s costumes are a work of art in and of themselves. The sheer detail in her gowns stun. Her pieces, particularly for the Ascot races scene, are a spectacle for the eye and are absolutely gorgeous while also defining characters social status.

The choreography by Christopher Gattelli, while not used very often, is absolutely thrilling in his centerpiece number “Get Me to The Church On Time”, which has the company going into high kicks. All of the technical elements are working on the same level, and their commitment to creating quality theatre and storytelling is nothing short of inspiring.

Lincoln Center Theater’s production of “My Fair Lady” is a lush and vibrant production of a sumptuous musical. The vibrant performances led by Benanti and Paton, and extraordinary direction by Bartlett Sher, breathes new life into this classic piece of theatre. The best revivals remind audiences of the magic of classic theatre, while also making a piece relevant to a new generation. This sparkling revival is pure bliss and one audiences should not miss.