Her Joys, Her Woes, Her Highs, Her Lows

THEATER REVIEW: My Fair Lady
Vivian Beaumont Theatre, New York, April 19, 2019

“Goodbye, Professor Higgins. What you are to do without me I cannot imagine.”

That’s Eliza Doolittle’s exit line in the Lincoln Center revival of My Fair Lady, which we recently saw on its one-year anniversary performance. I’d always wanted to see a major production of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s classic, but I was sold on the replacement casting of Laura Benanti, who hasn’t been shy about wanting to play Eliza. I can imagine sitting through a My Fair Lady without a strong Henry Higgins, but it wouldn’t work at all without an Eliza who can fully commit to the dual persona of flower girl and well-educated lady, plus sing the ravishing score. Thankfully, this beautiful revival has both.

Even before Benanti joined the show, director Bartlett Sher made a few small changes to play up Eliza’s liberation. She doesn’t say “You will not be seeing me again” to Higgins when she walks away–and for good reason, since we know she returns. In this version, her exit line is taken from Shaw’s original Pygmalion script, where (before countless adaptations changed everything) we never knew if Eliza came back. This gives a new dimension to Higgins’ epiphany “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face”: whether there’s romantic love or not, there is a co-dependence. Higgins has gotten used to having someone with “her ups, her downs,” whose emotional life is as keen and wide-ranging as his. For someone who insists he’s “an ordinary man” (and Harry Hadden-Paton gets a good laugh each time at this), he’s also a man of joys and woes, who has no real outlet to express his volatile innards before molding Eliza into the perfect pronouncer of the English language.

My Fair Lady at Lincoln Center isn’t a romance, it’s a battle of equals. It’s one of the revival’s smartest changes that Benanti and Hadden-Paton are roughly the same age. He’s still a boy; it’s easier to imagine he has the capacity to change. She has spent longer on the streets; no dewy-eyed innocent she. The power dynamic shifts a little in how the actors play their scenes. Eliza’s always been a woman of great determination, eager to fire back at her treatment at the hands of obnoxious men–from Higgins to her deadbeat father.

But of course, nothing was ever really that equal for a woman of her class. Subtle hints of physical abuse weave through the show: I believed this Daddy Doolittle (a smashing Danny Burstein, with the right swagger and instinctive wit) when he said he’d walloped Eliza, and Henry even attempts to physically strike her in their final confrontation.

Benanti’s Eliza uses humor to pick herself up, shrugging off when she mispronounces one of her lessons or says the wrong thing in a crowd. (Her Ascot outing is a delight.) She doesn’t shriek guttural noises; she even teases Higgins with a bird imitation when he refers to her as a “bilious pigeon.” And her soprano is a perfect fit for Lerner and Loewe’s songs. My one misgiving about Benanti: her accents, especially the Cockney, wander all over the place. It’s very noticeable in a show that values speech above all else. I’d love to see her again after a little more of Henry Higgins’ drilling.

And Higgins, in the hands of Hadden-Paton, charms despite being the O.G. toxic male. You can see how he admires Eliza, even from the start. There’s something appealing about her ghastly accent and her uncaring demeanor. When he takes her hand to dance during “The Rain in Spain,” there’s a tentative school-days nervousness, like he’s never really explored this aspect of his sexuality. Sher has cut just one verse of his harangues against women; “A Hymn to Him” no longer contains the immortal couplet, “Straightening up their hair is all they ever do / Why don’t they straighten up the mess that’s inside?” By the end, Hadden-Paton does an excellent job of conveying how wounded he’s become, openly seething and losing all sense of comportment. The thought of his creation eclipsing him is too much for this mopey man-child.

And yet. When he finally congratulates her–while also clearly congratulating himself on a job well done–I do believe he’s honest when he says, “I like you this way.” She may not need him, but suddenly he needs her.

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