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My Fair Lady

Kelsey Grammer and Kelli O'Hara are excellent in the New York Philharmonic's concert version of Lerner and Loewe's masterpiece. logo
Kelli O'Hara and Kelsey Grammer in My Fair Lady
(© Chris Lee)
Kelsey Grammer had a huge flop on his hands when he tackled Macbeth on Broadway in 2000; the critics savaged his performance and the public stayed away in droves, apparently having no desire to see the man they loved as TV's Frasier Crane in the role of a morally bankrupt, murderous Scottish king. But no such major disconnect exists with regard to Grammer's appearance as Professor Henry Higgins in the New York Philharmonic's semi-staged concert presentation of the musical theater masterpiece My Fair Lady.

With a score by Frederick Loewe and book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner, based on the play Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw, My Fair Lady presents a central male character who's highly intelligent, witty, egotistical, fussy, and often exasperated. All these traits were shared by Frasier, if not the professor's unabashed misogyny, and Grammer plays them to the hilt. He also sings the part very well in his own style, matching pitches far more often than did Rex Harrison, the original Higgins. Grammer was over-parted when he did Sweeney Todd in L.A. some years ago, but Higgins is a much better fit for him in every way.

That Kelli O'Hara possesses the glorious singing voice, first-class acting talent, and extraordinary physical beauty necessary for the role of Eliza Doolittle is a given. Nonetheless, some of her fans may have wondered if the young woman who triumphed in such shows as The Light in the Piazza, The Pajama Game, and My Life With Albertine would be convincing as the Cockney flower girl whom Higgins teaches to speak with Received Pronunciation and to behave like a lady of the highest breeding. As it turns out, O'Hara is almost vowel, diphtong, and consonant-perfect as both the lower-class guttersnipe and the transformed Eliza -- and her singing is so beautiful as to withstand comparison with Julie Andrews, the role's legendary creator. (O'Hara's soaring rendition of "I Could Have Danced All Night" virtually stops the show.)

Brian Dennehy's cockney elocutions in the role of Eliza's dad, Alfred P. Doolittle, are more indicated than organic; but his characterization is spot-on in every other way, and the audience clearly adores him. Charles Kimbrough is utterly charming as Colonel Hugh Pickering, Higgins' cohort. Philippe Castagner as Freddy Eynsford-Hill sings "On the Street Where You Live" with refulgent tone, though he's rather stiff in the character's spoken dialogue; Joe Grifasi and Michael J. Farina burst with comic energy as Doolittle's cohorts, Harry and Jamie; Tim Jerome is properly oily as Zoltan Karpathy; and Marni Nixon, who dubbed the singing voice of Eliza for Audrey Hepburn in the 1964 film version of My Fair Lady, is regal and delightfully droll as Mrs. Higgins.

Director James Brennan and choreographer Peggy Hickey do exemplary work here. Gail Baldoni's gorgeous costumes are far more elaborate than anything you'll see in the City Center Encores! series, and Ray Klausen supplies more set pieces than you'd expect, all of this adding greatly to the professionalism of the production. David Ives is credited with the concert adaptation of the script, which basically consisted of excising approximately 15-20 minutes of dialogue. Even with all these cuts, the first act runs a full hour and a half! But with a show like this one, the time flies by.

All-star, limited-run concert versions of musicals tend to receive precious little rehearsal, so it's not surprising that the first of My Fair Lady's four scheduled performances was a bit rough in spots. Grammer was late for one entrance, there were flubbed lines and lyrics from various folks, and the singers were sometimes a beat or two ahead of the orchestra; it seemed as if they weren't entirely comfortable with the tempi set by conductor Rob Fisher, or perhaps an excess of opening-night adrenalin caused the rushing.

No such raggedness exists within the orchestra itself; Fisher leads the Philharmonic in a lush and thrilling account of this magnificent score. To hear Robert Russell Bennett and Philip J. Lang's fabulous orchestrations of Loewe's music played live by a world-class symphony is a rare treat. (The equally great dance music arrangements are by Trude Rittman.)

Sadly, the current economics of the theater make it unlikely that a fully satisfying, production of My Fair Lady will ever again be seen on Broadway. With that in mind, you are advised to take this opportunity during the all-too-brief period in which it's being offered.

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