Ever since its debut 35 years ago, "My Fair Lady" has been rightly recognized as one of the greatest American musicals. But the revival that opened at the Mechanic Theatre last night is only slightly better than fair.
Its chief asset is its stars -- honey-throated Christine Andreas as Eliza Doolittle, the cockney flower seller; elegant John Neville as Professor Higgins, who attempts to turn her into a lady; walrus-like James Valentine as his crony, Colonel Pickering; and especially Clive Revill, who portrays Eliza's ever-inebriated dad as a gruff and grimy teddy bear.
Detracting from this admirable quartet are a merely adequate chorus; costumes that, at best, look like Cecil Beaton knock-offs and at worst, like rentals from a bride-and-formal shop; and, atypically for the Mechanic, a weak orchestra. Still, when the production clicks it's easy to see why the original ran nine years and why it has been repeatedly revived, as it will undoubtedly continue to be.
One of those moments comes when Mr. Neville's snooty Higgins is confronted by Mr. Revill's rough-edged Doolittle. The common bond between these seemingly disparate souls is amusingly clear -- they're both schemers, and in both cases their interest in Eliza rests chiefly on what she can do for them. After a few minutes, Higgins even begins scratching his side, Doolittle-style.
Occasionally Mr. Neville's acting seems studied -- perhaps because Baltimore is the last stop on a six-month tour. But there is a delightful dividend to his performance. He's much more of a singer than was the late Rex Harrison, who created the role.
His musical ability is also a welcome enhancement to Ms. Andreas' lush, vibrato-tinged voice, particularly when their songs are strung together in an ongoing argument in the final scenes; his number, "A Hymn to Him" is answered by her declaration, "Without You," which drives him to conclude, "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face."
With songs this strong, it's no wonder they canwithstand a fresh interpretation. In fact, after 35 years, it would have been intriguing to see a new interpretation of the entire production instead of this reverent recreation, staged by Crandall Diehl.
This is not to suggest that "My Fair Lady" has gone stale. Lerner and Loewe started with an unassailable source -- George Bernard Shaw's "Pygmalion" -- and the themes underlying this modern masterpiece are as fresh as ever.
Granted, the British playwright's preoccupation with class distinctions may not carry much weight on this side of the pond (and probably never did). But the theme of a young woman achieving her full potential is so up-to-date, it's a minor miracle that "My Fair Lady" hasn't been appropriated by the self-help movement. Recognizing that, it's all the more unfortunate that, though this anniversary revival approaches its potential, it never fully achieves it.
"My Fair Lady" continues at the Mechanic Theatre through Nov. 24; call 625-1400.