Where: Lyric Opera of Chicago at Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Dr.
When: through May 21
By ANNE SPISELMAN
Fifteen years ago, Court Theatre staged a minimalist version of “My Fair Lady” with two pianos in place of an orchestra and a total of ten actors led by Kevin Gudahl as Professor Henry Higgins and Kate Fry as Eliza Doolittle. While it couldn’t do justice to Frederick Loewe’s score, it showed Alan Jay Lerner’s lyrics off to good advantage and illuminated the characters in intriguing ways.
The Lyric Opera’s of Chicago’s current production, which was created in 2010 by director Robert Carsen of the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris with a different ensemble, is the antithesis of the one at Court. The latest entry in the Broadway at Lyric series is on a grand scale in every way. It boasts 56 cast members including 16 principals, 285 costumes by designer Anthony Powell, and 37 orchestra musicians conducted by David Chase. Oliviar Fredj directs this American premiere, which has several dance numbers choreographed by Lynne Page. The stylized set design by Tim Hatley features mostly white oversize cutouts of London landmarks like Covent Garden, as well as Higgins’ row house, and the sometimes striking lighting is co-designed by Carsen and Giuseppe di Iorio.
But, as we all know by now, bigger is not necessarily better.
The show has much to recommend, starting with the orchestra’s full-bodied performance of songs ranging from witty ditties like “Why Can’t the English,” “The Rain in Spain,” “Just You Wait,” and “Show Me” to lush classics such as “I Could Have Danced All Night” and “On the Street Where You Live.” Indeed, every song sounds good, even though the body mikes occasionally messed things up on opening night.
Lisa O’Hare is in fine form as Eliza. Feisty enough to stand up to Higgins and determined to improve her life, she also brings a whimsical loveliness to “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly” and a sure sense of comic timing to her first public outing, the hilarious tea at Ascot with Mrs. Higgins and the Eynsford-Hills. As she grows into a self-assured young woman, she’s also commanding in her icy response to the men’s post-ball self-congratulatory “You Did It.”
Richard E. Grant puts a distinctive stamp on Higgins, often using body language to lean into (sometimes literally) the role. His professor is a narcissistic man-child and self-styled “confirmed old bachelor” so taken with his own abilities and achievements that he’s oblivious to the feelings of others, especially Eliza. When the musical based on Shaw’s play and Gabriel Pascal’s motion picture “Pygmalion” made its debut in 1956, his abusive treatment of her might not have seemed so repugnant, but nowadays it goes beyond the normal battle-of-the-sexes stuff to become an impediment to a romance between them. And that’s a problem: Despite an occasional little spark, there’s not nearly enough chemistry between them.
Nicholas Le Prevost offers solid support as Colonel Pickering, the gentleman to Higgins’ oaf. But he doesn’t make as much of a mark as some of the other supporting players, particularly Helen Carey who is delightfully dry and sarcastic as Higgins’ mother, Mrs. Higgins, and Cindy Gold, who is more than usually sympathetic to Eliza as Mrs. Pearce. Bryce Pinkham’s main asset as Freddy Eynsford-Hill is his rousing tenor voice, and as Eliza’s dustman father, Alfred P. Doolittle, Donald Maxwell makes this member of the “undeserving poor” and opponent of “middle-class morality” memorable with his operatic renditions of “With a Little Bit of Luck” and “Get Me to the Church on Time.”
On the down side, the sheer scale of the production brings its own set of issues. So many chorus members are crammed onto the stage for the crowd scenes that the dancing and prancing around seem cramped, particularly during the “Get Me to the Church” sequence. The “Ascot Gavotte” comes off better, partly because the people are standing still for the most part, and the embassy ball isn’t too badly blocked, though it’s not as smooth as it could be.
The pumped-up chorus also means that Higgins has quite a house full of servants, which doesn’t really make sense for a professor of phonetics, even if he is successful (and his study is a two-story affair that’s much larger than the exterior of the building would suggest). This is doubly true because the time of the action has been moved forward from before World War I to between the world wars—sometime in the 1930s, judging by the costumes—and, as everyone who has watched “Downtown Abbey” knows, the staff had shrunk even in great houses.
Overall, Lyric’s “My Fair Lady” showcases both the advantages and disadvantages of having an opera company take on musical theater. I left the Civic Opera House wishing for a little more simplicity and intimacy. At the same time, I was reminded again just what a great show this is.