Any search for a perfect Henry Higgins might stop happily with Jonathan Pryce. The “My Fair Lady” gala concert Sunday night at the Kennedy Center was satisfying, not stunning, but it often sparkled thanks to Pryce’s masculine charm and zesty command.
The English star was attractively paired with Laura Michelle Kelly, whose combative and alluring Eliza (a flower girl, you recall) was nearly as ideal as Pryce’s magnetic Higgins (the pompous linguist who turns her into a society princess). Both performers had been there before: Pryce headlined London’s Cameron Mackintosh-produced “My Fair Lady” as it opened in 2001. Kelly, the only principal who didn’t need a script in her hand Sunday night, was Eliza when it closed more than two years later.
So the core could not have been sturdier, even if much of the rest of the production was like a loose party rambling across the Concert Hall stage and into the audience for Alfred P. Doolittle’s soused Pied Piper numbers. The 1956 Lerner and Loewe musical was condensed to just over two hours even with intermission, so director Marcia Milgrom Dodge largely kept the traffic humming from one peppy, indelibly ingrained standard (“Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?” “With a Little Bit of Luck,” “I Could Have Danced All Night,” etc.) to the next.
For audience members who spend more time in theaters than concert halls, the 35-piece orchestra was an undeniable asset, even in this talkiest of musicals. (Is that why Washington can’t stop producing this chatty, musically undemanding show? The Kennedy Center presented the touring Mackintosh version five years ago, and Signature Theatre and Arena Stage have also given it very recent and quirky spins.)
Another plus was Cloris Leachman as Higgins’s mother. Leachman brought high style (and one or two extremely long pauses) to her lines cutting cranky Henry down to size. Michael York (as the Higgins sidekick Pickering), Gregory Jbara (as Eliza’s jolly father) and the chorus of 14 singers added good spirits.
A genuine musical thrill or two would have been nice as well, but the choicest ear candy was served early, with Kelly casting a dreamy spell as the lush orchestra took a loping pace for “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?” The rest — aside from the delighted gasp induced by the Audrey Hepburn-esque white dress Kelly wore for the Ascot racing scene — hinged on what Higgins calls “the majesty and grandeur of the English language.”
Bless the Brits; they nailed it. Pryce’s delectable Higgins was so casually dashing that you understood why Eliza would fall for him, and verbally brusque enough that you got why Kelly’s feisty Eliza could say goodbye. Their ease and charisma were, as Higgins says, “of the first water.”