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The grand dame of musicals

Alex Miller
Vail CO, Colorado
Christopher Cazenove, as Henry Higgins, and Lisa O'Hare, as Eliza Doolittle, re-create some stage magic in the 50th Anniversary touring production of "My Fair Lady," playing at the Denver Center through April 6.
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This one’s tough to beat.

When it comes to musicals, one can justifiably heap the superlatives on “My Fair Lady.” It’s the grand dame of classic Broadway musical fare, with a cast of characters known to most of us and song after song as familiar as an old bathrobe. The 1964 film has its own place in the entertainment canon, with legendary performances by Audrey Hepburn as Eliza Doolittle and Rex Harrison as Henry Higgins.

With a top-notch touring 50th anniversary production parked at the Denver Center for the next few weeks, it’s the perfect time to revisit “My Fair Lady.”

At opening night Wednesday, the National Theatre of Great Britain cast showed they’re still fresh after a U.K. national tour that began in 2005. As Henry Higgins, Christopher Cazenove (who you might remember as Ben Carrington on “Dynasty”) hits the ground running with “Why Can’t the English?” ” establishing himself firmly with the audience from the get-go. As Eliza, Lisa O’Hare is spot-on, lovely and possessed of a magnificent voice she wrangles admirably from street tramp to “duchess.”

Writing the book and music for a great musical is, in my mind, one of the great cultural feats. There are so many elements that have to work together, so many character elements that need to be developed in such a short space of time ” it amazes me that anyone actually creates musicals, much less good or even great ones. “My Fair Lady” is the work of one of America’s great teams, Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe (they had “Brigadoon” behind them when they created “My Fair Lady” in 1956 and had “Camelot” and “Gigi” ahead).

One of the reasons “My Fair Lady” works so well on audiences is because Lerner (who wrote the book) gets to the meat of the story so very quickly, imprinting the caricatures of Henry and Eliza almost without delay. The initial exposition is dispensed with so rapidly that it leaves plenty of time for the story to unfold, as well as for the main sublot (Eliza’s father) to have room to play.

The story is simple enough: Henry Higgins, a professor of phonetics and languages, makes a bet with a friend that he can turn the street girl Eliza into a lady in six months. What Higgins doesn’t take into account is that “experiment” is a full-blooded human, for whom he’ll develop feelings he won’t recognize until it’s almost too late.

The production of “My Fair Lady” now playing in Denver is just about flawless. Cazenove and O’Hare are delightful, as are Col. Pickering (Walter Charles), would-be suitor Freddy (Justin Bohon ” who knocks “On the Street Where You Live” out of the park) and Henry’s mother, played by Marni Nixon. Interestingly enough, the role of Mrs. Higgins is non-singing, but it was Nixon, now 78, who supplied the singing voice behind Audrey Hepburn in the 1964 film.

The man having the most fun on stage in this show is Tim Jerome, who plays Eliza’s father, Alfred P. Doolittle. It’s with Alfred’s scenes that director Trevor Nunn lavished the most attention with big production numbers ” including a “Stomp”-like trashcan bit that’s a very nice bit of choreography. Jerome is old school ” the kind of actor who takes up all the oxygen on stage, revels in it and is adored by the audience.

As with any big touring production, it’s a lot of fun to see the big, sweeping sets ” the enormous bookcases that comprise Henry’s study are particularly extraordinary. With a live pit band, excellent sound and lavish costumes, this is one “My Fair Lady” not to be missed while she’s nearby.

Alex Miller can be reached at amiller@vaildaily.com or 748-2920.


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