When Bartlett Sher's enchanting revival of Lerner and Loewe's My Fair Lady opened last spring at the Vivian Beaumont Theater, a deeply moving Lauren Ambrose proved that you don't need to be a world-class singer to really sell the emotional and physical transformation of the Cockney flower seller Eliza Doolittle.
Ambrose's thoughtful, Tony-nominated performance worked well in the context of Sher's reconceptualized production, which gave Eliza, who rises from the gutter to become a proper "lady" with the help of persnickety linguist Henry Higgins, more agency in her own story than she's ever had. But it was polarizing. After all, there are a lot of great songs that audiences know, love, and want to hear sung.
Enter Laura Benanti, who has long said that Eliza is her dream role. Now that she's picked up the flower basket, it's not only her dream coming true, but ours as well. Though Ambrose's work was admirable, for musical-theater geeks, Benanti's Eliza is the real deal. Her entry into Sher's deluxe production, alongside a host of other new principals including the effortlessly funny Danny Burstein as her blustery dad, makes an already excellent show truly incredible.
The arrival of this fresh set of actors — which also includes Rosemary Harris as Mrs. Higgins, Christian Dante White as Freddy Eynsford-Hill, and Clarke Thorell as Professor Zoltan Karpathy — has really enlivened the piece, unlocking and awakening the comedic aspects of this beloved musical comedy that we didn't realize fell by the wayside before. My Fair Lady feels so fleet-footed now that, for nearly three hours, our attention never wanders.
While Ambrose was a tough, weary Eliza, Benanti is much more cunning and socially savvy. She seizes a great opportunity and milks it, not thinking about the potential consequences until it's too late. With her jubilant wit and sparkling intelligence on wonderful display throughout, it's particularly impressive how emotionally naked she's willing to get in the second act. Her rendition of "I Could Have Danced All Night" is as definitive as it gets. I could listen to it all night.
Benanti's performance has really enhanced the work of Harry Hadden-Paton, one of two holdovers from the original leading company (the other is Allan Corduner as Colonel Pickering). A Tony nominee, Hadden-Paton's Higgins was a priggish elitist when the show first opened, and opposite a first-rate comic actor like Benanti, he's allowed himself to loosen up considerably. He has become Frasier Crane crossed with Basil Fawlty, a would-be snob with a penchant for bungling things. It is perfectly calibrated for his new leading lady.
The new supporting company matches them considerably well. As Alfred P. Doolittle, Burstein carefully calculates a transformation that mirrors the one Eliza undergoes, adding an unexpected depth to a character that could easily just be a Falstaffian buffoon. (Pay attention to Burstein's eyes at the end of the rousing "Get Me to the Church on Time" and try not to be moved.) White is an adorably lovestruck Freddy with a swoon-worthy "On the Street Where You Live." And Harris, 91 and eternally spry, brings an endearing warmth to Mrs. Higgins that is quite charming.
As before, the operatic sumptuousness of Michael Yeargan's massive sets, Catherine Zuber's Tony-winning costumes, Donald Holder's beautiful lighting, and the 29-piece orchestra playing the original Robert Russell Bennett and Phil Lang arrangements is the perfect complement to a musical that calls for grandeur from top to bottom. To relive this world over and over — wouldn't it be loverly?