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Richard Chamberlain Stars in a Revival of ‘My Fair Lady’ on Broadway

December 10, 1993 GMT

NEW YORK (AP) _ By George, have they got it?

Well, not quite, in the new revival of ″My Fair Lady″ starring Richard Chamberlain and Melissa Errico that has made its way to Broadway after a long road tour.

No one wants a carbon copy of the original, and what opened Thursday at the Virginia Theater certainly can’t be accused of slavishly imitating the 1956 production. That landmark starred Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews and featured Oliver Smith’s lavish sets and Cecil Beaton’s striking costumes.

The two new stars are respectable and, in the case of Errico, more than that. Yet something has happened to director Howard Davies’ attempt to re- examine Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s musical masterpiece. It stops short of taking a truly memorable look at a show most of its audiences probably can sing by heart.

Call this revival ″the half-hearted surrealist version.″ Magritte on the cheap, so to speak. The Belgian painter seems to be guiding spirit behind the physical production, which favors backdrops of blue sky and puffy white clouds.

In what must be the strangest bit of billing in several Broadway seasons, the theater program lists ″Scenic design based on original designs by Ralph Koltai.″ No one is definitively credited with what finally has ended up on stage, and the confusion and lack of confidence are apparent.

Some of this pictorial fantasy works very well, particularly in the Ascot race scene when spectators, done up in Patricia Zipprodt’s opulent costumes, literally float down from the heavens. It’s a bit of Mary Poppins delirium that is the most theatrical and entrancing moment in the show.

Ascot makes up for several visually undernourished scenes, particularly the opening when Covent Garden is suggested by crates piled on top of each other and a couple of windows and doors that are linked together.

More bizarre, yet equally flimsy, is Professor Henry Higgins’ study, which looks as if it was decorated by Salvador Dali and Dr. Frankenstein. A large bald head looms in one corner and the other is filled with ominous laboratory gear that would be essential for the making of the good doctor’s monster. Reality is not the order of the day.

The realistic acting is at odds with the surreal surroundings. Errico, who was out with vocal problems for much of the tour, makes a strong, vigorous - OK, spunky - Eliza Doolittle. She looks a bit like a dark-haired Bernadette Peters and sings like a dream. Errico also is a very physical Eliza, singing ″I Could Have Danced All Night″ as if she would never sit out a dance.

Chamberlain gives a more conventional, less daring performance, handicapped perhaps by the memory of Harrison, whose portrayal can be recalled readily from the 1964 film version of the show. He’s also a little too genial. There’s an American niceness to his portrait of Henry Higgins that makes the man’s confrontations with Eliza seem a bit unreal.

The two leads are supported by a pair of sterling character actors - the intrepid Paxton Whitehead as a quite funny Col. Pickering and Julian Holloway as Eliza’s father, Alfred P. Doolittle. Holloway, a real song-and-dance man, is the son of Stanley Holloway, who originated the role of Alfred 37 years ago. He would make his father proud.

Robert Sella is a quavery-voiced Freddie Eynesford-Hill, while a misdirected Dolores Sutton is aggressively comic, playing what seems to be the mayor’s wife in ″The Music Man″ rather than Henry Higgins’ aristocratic mother.

Donald Saddler’s choreography is conventionally enthusiastic, except in ″With a Little Bit of Luck″ which manages a fresh slant on a sure-fire show stopper.

Lerner’s witty, literate and absolutely appropriate lyrics and Loewe’s glorious melodies haven’t aged. They sound as fresh as ever. One problem at this revival is the hummers and singers in the audience who feel compelled to accompany the performers on stage.

Not a definitive reworking, then, of one of the best musicals Broadway ever produced, but this ″Fair Lady″ certainly does take some chances. It should have taken more.

What other critic said:

David Richards, The New York Times: About half the time, Mr. Davies is taking ″My Fair Lady″ in such an innovative direction that one wishes he had carried his vision through to the end. ... This ″My Fair Lady″ winds up trying to have its crumpets and eat them, too.

Howard Kissel, Daily News: If the original production made ″My Fair Lady″ seem the Rolls-Royce of American musicals, this revival makes it a Yugo. It looks serviceable, it gets you where you want to go and it has proper ideological underpinnings.

Clive Barnes, New York Post: It looks odd, and the effortless balance of the original has frankly been lost.

S-12-10-93 1522EST