Music: Frederick Loewe; Book and Lyrics: Alan Jay Lerner. At: Lyric Opera of Chicago, 20 N. Wacker Dr. Tickets: 312-827-5600 or LyricOpera.org; $22-$199. Runs through: May 21
No doubt some audiences watching My Fair Lady at the Lyric Opera of Chicago may wonder why designer Tim Hatley's imposing sets are so dominantly white. From the grubby markets of Covent Garden to the posh racing ground tents of Ascot, there's very little shade variation between eggshell to cream.
Perhaps original director Robert Carsen went for a clean look to imply that all of London society have been turned into a clinical laboratory experiment. After all, Lerner and Loewe's iconic 1956 Broadway musical adaptation of George Bernard Shaw's play Pygmalion hinges on the hypothesis that a cockney flower girl like Eliza Doolittle could improve her lot in life simply through a crash course in linguistics and elocution.
At least that's my interpretation of Carsen's rather antiseptic 1930s updating of My Fair Lady, which was first seen in 2010 at Paris' ThéÃątre du ChÃątelet. ( Olivier Fredj has re-staged it for the Lyric ). But also My Fair Lady stills feel like an experiment for the Lyric itself when it comes to staging Broadway musicals.
As in previous post-season outings featuring Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals like Oklahoma! and Carousel, the amplification was very echo-prone and tinny ( the credited sound designer is Mark Grey ). Others will argue that the Lyric is far too large a barn for musicals, even if this production boasts an opera-scale cast of 56 and an enlarged orchestra of 37 musiciansfar more than you would ever expect nowadays on Broadway.
For many of the starring principals, the Lyric has attracted many Commonwealth pros who have a prior history with My Fair Lady.
Richard E. Grant ( Withnail and I, Jackie ) chooses to e mphasize Prof. Henry Higgins' madcap eccentricities right up until the very end of "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face." Grant could have let more emotional depth seep through this final number. Yet the final sexist lines Higgins says does imply that Grant's playfully loose take is justifiable.
Lisa O'Hare is a veteran Eliza Doolittle ( last seen in Chicago on tour in 2008 ), and she plays the role's emotional highs and lows perfectly. As an original Broadway cast member of A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder, its great to see O'Hare re-teamed with that show's Tony Award-nominated star Bryce Pinkham. He beautifully sings Freddy Eynsford-Hill's ballad "On the Street Where You Live."
Other plusses include Lynne Page's rousing choreography for the cockneys, Anthony Powell's colorful costumes and the great orchestral playing led by conductor David Chase. Overall, the Lyric's My Fair Lady is solidly respectableif a tad too chilly and overwhelmingly white.