Guthrie’s ‘Lady’: better than fair

Helen Anker (Eliza Doolittle) and members of the chorus in the Guthrie’s production of “My Fair Lady.” (Photo by Joan Marcus.)

To lovers of “My Fair Lady,” there’s a right way and a wrong way to produce the Lerner and Loewe musical: The right way is pretty much the way they did it on Broadway back in 1956. The wrong way is any other way.

And the cast of the current Guthrie production, under Joe Dowling’s direction, does it the right way. If all you want is a room somewhere, far away from the cold night air, you’re in luck. It’s a relief, given Dowling’s record of injecting modern motifs into the classics, that he didn’t plant street rappers among the Covent Garden flower girls. Instead, he has remained faithful to the authors’ creative vision, and may even have focused it more sharply.

Take Eliza Doolittle. On Broadway, Julie Andrews was a little too clean under the fingernails for the guttersnipe version of Eliza; she sang “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly” in a voice too perfectly trained, and sounded like Julie Andrews doing a Cockney accent. But Helen Anker gives Eliza a ragged voice that sometimes wanders off pitch, as it would if she spent her days breathing cold, sooty air and hawking flowers to the odd professor of phonetics.

The professor, too, departs only in small ways from the template created by Rex Harrison in the stage and film productions. Though grayer, Jeff McCarthy seems younger and more vigorous in his characterization of Henry Higgins. Like Rex, he speaks his way through most of his songs; unlike Rex, in those musical moments when he slips into singing, he has a pleasant voice. And anyway, is it even possible to sing instead of speak “Why Can’t the English”? We may never know.

And who cares? A grumpy observer might point out that McCarthy sometimes speaks ahead of the cadence, and has to wait for the backstage orchestra to catch up. Or that Anker, once she gets the hang of “rain” and “Spain,” suddenly develops a cultured singing voice to go with her newly refined accent. We’d all be happier if the grumpy observer just stayed home.

Because this production is plain fun, with lavish sets, richly executed costume design and top-notch performances. Tony Sheldon’s Colonel Pickering is a decent, delightful counter to the amoral Higgins. Tyler Michaels is a cheerfully demented, thousand-watt Freddy. Robert O. Berdahl lives up, or down, to Higgins’ description of the oily Zoltan Karpathy. Angela Timberman delivers the right mixture of compassion and disdain as the housekeeper, Mrs. Pearce. And Donald Corren plays Alfred Doolittle as if he were born to the role.

Throughout, Joe Chvala’s choreography illustrates the story without threatening to supplant it. Karpathy’s sinister maneuvering at the Embassy Ball is a dance performance in itself.

The grumpy observer would point out that this production plows no new ground, that it merely delivers a faithful rendition of a beloved classic. Fair enough. There is a reason this show performed so many thousands of times on Broadway and in London. Dowling has uncrated it and pumped it full of air and life, making it available for new audiences. It’s an achievement.