Concert performances of Broadway musicals often rely on vocal pyrotechnics and star power to make their way, but this rewarding production of My Fair Lady, which began life as entertainment for Beltway insiders at the 2013 Kennedy Center Gala, nevertheless succeeded entirely on its own merits. Lerner and Lowe’s fascinating adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion retains its interest wherever and whenever the English language exists as a register of social class and as an indicator of belonging. It was gratifying to see multiple generations of theatergoers crowding the Granada on a sunny Father’s Day to revel in the intricacies and pathos of a classic musical.
As Henry Higgins, Jonathan Pryce established early on that things would not fall apart, and the center would in fact hold. With Pryce on board, the role of Henry Higgins took on a wondrous universality. The fastidious linguist with his unerring ear for origins stands for reason, and for men, against not only the silly essentialism of class snobbishness, but also the frustrating inability of women to be more like men. Having played the role with great success in London a little more than a decade ago, Pryce made this star turn look easy and lit up the theater while doing so. As his best friend and co-conspirator, Colonel Hugh Pickering, Michael York was also splendid, and together this pair of supremely gifted and experienced actors sounded all the many rich notes of influence in the show’s clever book: Gilbert and Sullivan, of course, but also Cole Porter and Noël Coward. It was fitting that on this Father’s Day, some of the afternoon’s biggest ovations went to Gregory Jbara, who played Eliza’s father, Alfred P. Doolittle. Jbara stopped the show twice, once during the first act when he sang “With a Little Bit of Luck” and then again in act two with “Get Me to the Church On Time,” and both numbers were enhanced by the excellent choreography of director Marcia Milgrom Dodge. In fact, throughout this staged concert version of the show, the movement was well-managed, inventive, and entertaining enough to be the envy of many a fully staged production.
Even among such stellar players, Cloris Leachman was nevertheless a standout for her powerful and funny portrayal of Mrs. Higgins, the society dame mother of Henry. In scene after scene, Leachman showed that she still knows how to hold a pause just long enough to land a line to maximum effect. One understood completely how this character could become such a strong if unlikely role model for Eliza; which brings us to Laura Michelle Kelly, who delivered as fine a performance as Eliza as one could imagine. She sang exceedingly well, she looked the part, and most of all, she made the various moments of abrupt transition when her character within the play — the upper-class woman she becomes under Higgins’s instruction — breaks down and her “real” origins are revealed. It’s a devilishly difficult bit of business, but on it, the whole of My Fair Lady depends. If your Eliza can’t get this right, nothing else will make much sense, and fortunately for this production, Kelly carries it off. Although the grand experiment of bringing this production to Santa Barbara looks to be a one-off thing, it was certainly encouraging to see so many turn out for what was a very satisfying show.