- The Washington Times - Friday, January 4, 2008

Director Trevor Nunn’s pristine and fleet-footed revival of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s “My Fair Lady” is a “loverly” reminder of how sublime melody and indelible characters can transport you to a realm of romantic fancy.

“My Fair Lady” debuted in 1956 and remains one of Broadway’s longest running musicals of all time. Based on George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion,” the musical combines a Cinderella story with social commentary about class distinction and dismissive treatment of women.

Politics and pheromones collide in this tale of a stringent linguist, Professor Henry Higgins, who bets a colleague he can turn flower vendor Eliza Doolittle from a guttersnipe to a duchess.

Mr. Nunn’s revival was first staged in London in 2001, with the mesmeric Jonathan Pryce playing erudite crank Higgins, and the Kennedy Center monthlong engagement is part of a U.S. tour that began last fall.

Mr. Pryce and his Eliza (Martine McCutcheon) have been replaced by PBS heartthrob Christopher Cazenove and Lisa O’Hare, both pleasingly entertaining in the roles and more faithful to the piece than groundbreaking in their interpretations.

Miss O’Hare’s singing gains potency after a wobbly “Wouldn’t it be Loverly,” and her true strength lies in her acting chops and the comic, faintly erotic frisson she establishes with Mr. Cazenove’s solid Higgins.

The Opera House is not the venue for nuance, however, and even in the theater’s mid-orchestra section it was difficult at times to make out facial subtleties of the actors or to bask in the flickering intimacy growing between priggish Higgins and his willful protege Eliza.

Often, touring shows cut corners, but little evidence of that can be detected in this production. Anthony Ward’s opulent costumes and elegantly detailed sets glide on and offstage with such dance-like precision they seem to have been choreographed by Matthew Bourne, who staged the musical’s frisky dance numbers.

Mr. Bourne’s main contribution to the revival appears to be keeping it moving like an immaculately engineered Edwardian engine. Production numbers like “With a Little Bit of Luck” have been goosed up for maximum firepower, with a “Stomp”-like fusillade of street percussion punctuating Alfred P. Doolittle’s (Tim Jerome) ode to the opportunistic life of a dedicated roisterer.

Mr. Jerome’s music hall-inspired, unabashedly dissipated portrayal of Doolittle is one of the musical’s high points.

The famous “Ascot Gavotte” is staged with the painterly refinement of the opening moments of “Sunday in the Park With George,” with the upper crust moving with the reserve of equine dressage in stately patterns across the stage — wittily conveying just how removed they are from their emotions and the world at large.

Of course, the performers do this in Mr. Ward’s stunning costumes, which, with their black palette enlivened by swoops of deep purple, pay homage to Cecil Beaton’s black-and-white ensembles from the 1964 movie.

Sometimes, the emphasis on movement is a bit too precious, as in the number “Show Me,” in which Eliza rails against the verbal wooing of high-born Freddy Eynsford-Hill (the excellent Justin Bohon).

In the course of the song, Eliza takes us on a brisk tour of London, starting on Wimpole Street and moving into a jostling Underground car before winding up waving a protest sign with a group of suffragettes.

Yet, these are mere quibbles with an expertly staged revival of “My Fair Lady” that revels in the gorgeous score by Lerner and Loewe and in the tantalizing possibility that a stuffy professor and a plucky gamin could find mutual affection and change each other for the better.

***1/2

WHAT: “My Fair Lady,” book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner, music by Frederick Loewe

WHERE: Opera House, John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays, 1:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through Jan. 20

TICKETS: $25 to $150

PHONE: 202/467-4600

WEB SITE: www.kennedy-center.org

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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