Glorious musical theater at Lyric Opera of Chicago

By M.L. RANTALA
Classical Music Critic

What: “My Fair Lady”
Where: Lyric Opera, 20 N. Wacker Dr.
When: Through May 21
Tickets: Lyricopera.org

Run, don’t walk, to get tickets for Lyric Opera of Chicago’s production of “My Fair Lady.” It is bursting with warmth, joy, and laughter from beginning to end. You’ll go home humming, if not singing, any number of the memorable tunes from this 1956 Lerner and Loewe gem.

Fans of “Downton Abbey” will be pleased to see Richard E. Grant in the role of Henry Higgins. On “Downton,” he was the oily art historian Simon Bricker who flirts with Lady Cora. Her husband Lord Grantham only sees Bricker as paying too much attention to his dog, leading to one of the series’ many famous lines, “There is nothing more ill-bred than trying to steal the affections of someone else’s dog.” Grantham later discovers there is indeed something worse, when he finds Bricker in Cora’s bedroom and a physical altercation ensues.

As the professor of phonetics who transforms a Cockney girl into a lady, Grant is a formidable ball of enthusiasm, self-certainty, and eccentricity. He provides enough silliness to make him endearing and cause the viewer to want a Higgins-Eliza match to succeed.

His stage presence is energetic and he traipses about with abandon. He invests his singing with a more professorial bent (as suits his smallish voice) reminding us of the character’s intellectual proclivities.

The multi-talented Lisa O’Hare is a stunning and lovable Eliza Doolittle. Her transformation from guttersnipe to cultured woman is one of the production’s most superb elements.

O’Hare has a marvelously pleasing voice, sweet and clear, and her musical as well as comedic timing are always perfect.

Donald Maxwell is a rumbustious and engaging Alfred P. Doolittle, Eliza’s father. His larger than life portrayal makes him the center of attention in nearly every scene in which he’s featured.

Colonel Pickering is played with sympathy and intelligence (and perhaps a bit too much self-effacement) by Nicholas Prevost and Freddy Eynsford-Hill is given full puppy-love treatment by Bryce Pinkham. Both Helen Carey (as the professor’s mother) and Cindy Gold (as the housekeeper, Mrs. Pearce) gleam with intelligence, helping to bring this musical up-to-date.

Revival director Olivier Fredj (original director Robert Carson, for a production in France) keeps the action moving and interesting throughout, enhanced by the splendid sets of Tim Hatley (the professor’s two story library is particularly fantastic).

The costumes by Anthony Powell are faultless and evoke not only time and place, but social standing as well, as was the heart of George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion” on which “My Fair Lady” is based. Eliza’s gown for the embassy ball is utterly scrumptious.

The singing throughout is top notch, down to the smallest roles, with the Cockney Quartet being notably fine. The chorus, made up in large part by Lyric Opera Chorus members, has been expertly prepared by Michael Black.

High praise also goes to choreographer Lynne Page, who has created astonishing work for “Get Me to the Church on Time.”

Conductor David Chase brings froth and fun from the pit at every turn.

It would be a shame to miss all the glory of this “My Fair Lady.”