I have a soft spot for Broadway revivals. Depending on the season, I’m usually either excited or neutral about new, original musicals, but nothing beats seeing gorgeous, full-blown productions of the shows I grew up loving. I’m still waiting for a revival of The Music Man, but in the meantime, I had the pleasure of seeing My Fair Lady at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater last week. While it’s never been one of my favorites, I’ve always adored My Fair Lady‘s score, and seeing it on such a grand scale was wonderful.
Following Cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle’s mission to improve her dialect with lessons from linguistics expert Professor Henry Higgins, this revival originally opened in April. TV star Lauren Ambrose played Eliza Doolittle, and after scoring a Tony nomination, she left the production to film a TV series. Acclaimed Broadway star Laura Benanti, who I’ve grown to love for her humor and great social media presence, then stepped into what she has long described as her dream role. She joined original company members Harry Hadden-Paton as Henry Higgins and Norbert Leo Butz as Alfred Doolittle.
Seeing as Ambrose isn’t exactly known for theater work, I was very iffy about going to My Fair Lady when it first opened. While I do love its music, I’ve only seen the movie adaptation twice and never really enjoyed it. Being a fan of Butz since discovering The Last Five Years in middle school, I was tempted to buy a ticket to see his praised performance, but his involvement just wasn’t enough to give up that kind of money. But after Benanti was announced as a replacement at the end of summer, a new block of $35 LincTix was released, and I jumped on the chance to see one of my favorite Broadway stars in a role she has longed for. If you’re between the ages of 21 and 35, you can sign up for free membership in the LincTix program and have access to $35 tickets to Lincoln Center productions. Shows here can be pricey without many discount opportunities, so this system is an amazing way to grab a great but cheap seat!
At the Vivian Beaumont Theater, the LincTix tickets appeared to be limited to seats on the far right and left of the stage, as the area is partially in the round, If you’re worried about having obstructed views in these sections, the musical’s staging has that detail in mind. While there were moments in which a speaking actor’s back was turned away from our side, the musical numbers usually utilize the full stage, ensuring that you won’t miss anything. I also enjoyed having the unique angle of being close to ensemble members stationed in the background and watching them in character while not being the focus of the scene.
A key example of this was during the performance of “Poor Professor Higgins.” Higgins’ home was built on a revolving track, meaning that the set easily transitioned from his (enviable) study to a foyer and showed his servants interacting with each others in side rooms. Watching maids roll their eyes at the butler or have secret rendezvous with policemen while a song played was so entertaining. Benanti also traveled throughout the circling set during “Just You Wait,” which blew my mind. How difficult must it be to sing, act, and walk through a moving set without stumbling or losing your place?
Benanti totally sells the humorous and defiant sides of Eliza. Amidst public discussion of how older musicals like My Fair Lady work in the #MeToo era, the show definitely ends with a feminist tone. An older woman in my section uttered, “Good girl!” as the moment happened, so that should tell you that this version certainly ends in Eliza’s favor. I think the character’s songs can often overshadow the other work required of the actress, but for me, Benanti particularly shone in Eliza’s vulnerable moments of dialogue.
As Higgins, Hadden-Paton (whose Downton Abbey character married poor, unfortunate Edith) erases the problematic factor of the character normally being much older than Eliza. Now with the two leads seen as the same age and Benanti playing the character toughly from the beginning, Eliza appears to have more agency in her overall decisions. Hadden-Paton also delivers a frenetic, almost socially awkward energy that probably wouldn’t have worked as well with an older actor. Also during this performance, understudy Adam Grupper was playing Colonel Pickering, who Allan Corduner normally plays. Having seen an understudy in a principal role when I saw Anastasia, I really enjoy unexpectedly catching them onstage, and I instantly recognized Grupper’s name from Adam Kantor’s Broadway.com vlog of the Fiddler on the Roof revival. He was smooth and natural in the role, which is always so impressive of an understudy!
Playing Eliza’s father Alfred, Nortbert Leo Butz was as great as word of mouth claimed. His number “Get Me to the Church On Time” is a grand showstopper, and his energy throughout the song is contagious. Between him and Benanti, I made a notable dent in the list of Broadway performers I need to see live, and come January, Danny Burstein, another favorite who I saw in Fiddler on the Roof, is replacing Butz in the role. While I wouldn’t give up seeing Butz, missing Burstein in the show is a little disappointing, and I could easily picture him just having a blast with some of Alfred’s scenes.
While My Fair Lady has never been one of my favorites, I loved having the chance to just delve into a classic musical for the night. I had a smile on my face throughout the production, and that’s all I want from a well-known show like this one.