That Ahmed can trill the heck out of those eternal Lerner and Loewe tunes — “Wouldn’t it be Loverly?,” “Just You Wait,” “Without You” and the spirit-soaring “I Could Have Danced All Night” — stamps this actress as the remarkable heir to a treasure of a role. Supporting her and Mackintosh are some other loverly performances, most notably by Adam Grupper, as the very model of an oily Alfred P. Doolittle, and Kevin Pariseau, commendably activating the decency of Colonel Pickering, Henry’s newfound sidekick.
You do sometimes in a national tour have the disappointing intimation of reasonable facsimile, the feeling that you sought a designer brand but wound up with a knockoff. Not on this occasion. Sher, with exuberant assists from costume designer Catherine Zuber and choreographer Christopher Gattelli, among others, gives audiences the same resplendent experience as was offered by Lincoln Center Theater in its Broadway house, the Vivian Beaumont. Thankfully, Michael Yeargan’s revolving set of Henry’s Wimpole Street townhouse in London retains its Edwardian luster — even if the traveling version does not look strictly fit-to-size in the Opera House. To your greater relief, sound designer Marc Salzberg has seen to it that Lerner’s immaculate lyrics are audible at all times in a massive space not always conducive to musicals.
“My Fair Lady” is itself virtually indestructible, musical theater’s gold standard for the integration of melody and story. Over the course of nearly three hours, never once does one question why somebody — or everybody — breaks into song. That’s because the tunes are so tailored to the specifications of character and plot that they put a bespoke Jermyn Street suit to shame. Henry’s grandiosity and snobbism are established in the opening number in Covent Garden, “Why Can’t the English?” His emotional through-line tracks so completely in song that his personality is illuminated almost as much by the notes on a scale as words in a script.
It occurred to me in this umpteenth exposure to “My Fair Lady” that Henry’s capstone song, “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” — his aria of self-awareness after transformed Eliza swears him off — is not the sentimental ballad it’s often thought to be. The musical is not, as Sher’s version makes plain, really about the professor’s education, his softening in the presence of a beautiful, surprisingly headstrong young woman. It’s about a woman not yielding to a man’s idea of who she should be. Mackintosh establishes the self-regarding, man-child quality of Henry so convincingly that “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” reveals here that Henry hasn’t learned much of anything about women, except perhaps that he wants one to hang around.
Sher grapples with the misogyny Henry has expressed all through the show by adding his own consequential tweak to the musical’s ambiguous final moments, when Eliza and Henry come face to face in his study, and he delivers that last command: “Eliza, where the devil are my slippers?” Is the demand ironic or presumptuous, or both? The answer the director comes up with will be left to you to discover. But the reaction of Mackintosh’s Henry as the lights go down feels as if it’s the one false note on an otherwise impeccable evening.
Grupper, an actor I’ve admired for years, turns up in “My Fair Lady” as a consummately pleasurable Alfie, he of the gruff, ale-saturated eloquence. “Get Me to the Church on Time,” as sung by Grupper and the denizens of the tenements, and staged by Gattelli, buoyantly unleashes the tension that’s been building courtesy of the repressed upper-crust scenes, especially in the marvelous satire of “Ascot Gavotte.” Among the swells, Leslie Alexander excels as the professor’s amusingly acerbic mother, while Gayton Scott admirably locates the essential warmth in the stalwart housekeeper Mrs. Pearce. And Sam Simahk, playing Freddy Eynsford-Hill, performs such a scintillating rendition of “On the Street Where You Live” that you’re tempted to ask him to sing it on every street corner in town.
It is, though, the captivating Ahmed who is here, to paraphrase Lerner and Loewe, the beginning and the end. With qualities reminiscent of such illustrious Eliza forerunners as Julie Andrews and Audrey Hepburn — not to mention the beguiling Laura Benanti — you can imagine that, like a splendid “My Fair Lady” on the road, she will go far.
My Fair Lady, book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner, music by Frederick Loewe. Directed by Bartlett Sher. Music supervision, Ted Sperling; choreography, Christopher Gattelli; sets, Michael Yeargan; costumes, Catherine Zuber; lighting, Donald Holder; sound, Marc Salzberg. With Wade McCollum, JoAnna Rhinehart. About three hours. $39-$159. Through Jan. 19 at John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. 202-467-4600. kennedy-center.org.