‘My Fair Lady’ Gets Paris Staging, in English, Phew!: Review

Nicholas Le Prevost, Alex Jennings and Sarah Gabriel in "My Fair Lady" at the Chatelet in Paris. Photographer: Marie-Noelle Robert/Theatre du Chatelet via Bloomberg

More than half a century after the Broadway premiere, “My Fair Lady” has made it to the Paris stage. It’s an enchanting production.

The Frederick Loewe and Alan Jay Lerner musical is performed in English, fortunately, at the Theatre du Chatelet. Professor Higgins’s experiment -- transforming a Cockney flower girl into a lady, who can speak the King’s English and pass muster at an ambassador’s party -- makes sense only in a society where accent and class are intimately linked.

You wouldn’t want to hear “Le ciel serein d’Espagne est sans embrun,” the French subtitle in the 1964 movie musical, instead of the original line “The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain.”

Never mind that George Bernard Shaw, on whose 1912 play “Pygmalion” the musical is based, would have hated it. Although he dubbed his play “a romance,” Shaw insisted there is no happy ending for Higgins and Eliza, his pupil.

Only at the press preview, two days before the opening of the 1938 film, did Shaw discover that his screenplay had been sweetened. The Cinderella story was born.

Before the curtain rises on the Paris production of the musical, you see the portico of St. Paul’s Church in Covent Garden, where the story begins, with the inscription “Mea Pulchra Puella” or dog Latin for “My Fair Lady.”

Good Old Days

Robert Carsen, the director, Tim Hatley and Anthony Powell, the set and costume designers, have spared no effort to conjure up the good old times when a professor of phonetics could live in a sumptuous house between Mayfair and Regent’s Park, pampered by a maid, a cook, a footman and a chauffeur.

The only liberty they have taken is to move the action from the Edwardian era to the interwar years with less formal, though still elegant costumes.

The Theatre du Chatelet could afford this visibly expensive production thanks to a burden-sharing agreement with the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg where it will travel in June -- the first musical ever to be performed in that august institution.

Alex Jennings is a perfect Higgins -- arrogant, self-centered yet with emotions he discovers when Eliza threatens to leave. He can’t really sing, but neither could Rex Harrison who triumphed in the role on Broadway and in the movie.

Sarah Gabriel doesn’t have the charisma of Julie Andrews, who created Eliza on Broadway, and her singing is bland. Still, she’s touching enough to make believable the transformation from proletarian guttersnipe to sensitive lady.

The best singing comes from Donald Maxwell’s Doolittle, Eliza’s father, the paragon of the “undeserving poor.” He relishes his juicy role with the voice of a Falstaff, a role he sang at the English National Opera.

Margaret Tyzack as the professor’s worldly-wise mother is a model of grace and elegance. Kevin Farrell conducts the Orchestre Pasdeloup with brio.

Rating: ***.

“My Fair Lady” is at the Theatre du Chatelet through Jan. 2, 2011. Information: http://www.chatelet-theatre.com or +33-1-4028-2828.

(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

What the Stars Mean:
****            Outstanding
***             Good
**              Average
*               Poor
(No stars)      Worthless
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