Forgive the corny intro, but let's face it: The New York Philharmonic's concert version of "My Fair Lady" was an evening to swoon about, from the first notes of that luscious overture to the final moment when Henry Higgins leans back contentedly and asks Eliza, now sophisticated and wise, where his slippers are.
Credit goes first to Lerner and Loewe's beloved musical itself, which never seems old, never stale, despite its plethora of remarks that would be considered sexist if they weren't delivered in such an amusing way. It's just a delightful show that will remain delightful until the end of time.
And because the music is so good, it's fitting that the orchestra took center stage in this semi-staged version, with hardly a set but with costumes, dancing and terrific singing.
But the standout in this production — it lasts only four nights, alas — was the inspired casting. "My Fair Lady," of course, rises and falls on the strength of its Eliza Doolittle, and in Kelli O'Hara it had one of the brightest lights in today's musical theater.
O'Hara made her name as the sweet-voiced ingénue of "The Light in the Piazza," then solidified her credentials with an acclaimed turn as the brassy Babe in "The Pajama Game," where she created some real steam heat with her co-star, Harry Connick Jr. The iconic role of Eliza calls for elements of both these roles: brassy and coarse, in early scenes as the Cockney flower girl, then refined, sweet and regal later on.
O'Hara took a little time to grow into the performance. Her Cockney accent was not the most convincing, and she seemed aching to break free of it. But by the time "rine" turned into "rain" and "spine" into "Spain," she was off and flying. And by the end of a rousing "I Could Have Danced All Night," when she fearlessly and flawlessly attacked those closing high notes, she had the audience flying with her, and roaring with approval.
A bigger surprise was Kelsey Grammer, who's done plenty of Shakespeare (and once, "Sweeney Todd") but hardly has the musical theater credentials of his co-star. Would he come off as, well, a TV sitcom star on Broadway? But Grammer was a charming Higgins, and he even sang parts of the songs, too, unlike Rex Harrison. His Higgins never slipped into caricature, had lots of humanity and lots of humor. His "A Hymn to Him," a lament on the mysteries of womanhood, was delivered with the comic ease and timing honed over years as "Frasier." And "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face" had enough poignancy to bring a little tear to many an eye.
Then there was Brian Dennehy, not the man you'd think would be the ideal Alfred P. Doolittle — after all, this is a brawny guy. But Dennehy imbued Eliza's dad with an easy humor that was infectious. What was that little move he did in "With A Little Bit of Luck" — a curtsy, with a step to the side? Whatever it was, it was the height of comic economy: A big man doing a tiny move that sent the audience into fits of giggles.
Charles Kimbrough (the self-centered anchorman in "Murphy Brown") provided nice support as Colonel Pickering, and Philippe Castagner let loose a beautiful tenor voice, if perhaps a little too operatic for the context, as Freddy Eynsford-Hill, Eliza's hapless suitor. And a lovely touch was the presence of Marni Nixon — whose rich soprano was dubbed over Audrey Hepburn's voice in the 1964 film — as Henry Higgins' mother. It was a non-singing role, but welcome all the same.
It's a pity it will all end so soon. Wouldn't it be lovely if they found a way to continue?