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NY Theater Reviews

Laura Benanti, Christian Dante White and Allan Corduner/ Ph: Joan Marcus

WONDERFUL AS EVER

By MATT WINDMAN

Laura Benanti's performance should silence any critics who say she's too old for the lead role.

As detailed in her terrific one-woman cabaret show In Constant Search of the Right Kind of Attention (which was recorded live and is available on disc), as a child, the Tony-winning stage and screen actress Laura Benanti once cried on the bus ride home because no one else in her elementary school class knew of Rosemary Clooney. A few years later, Benanti dressed as Fosca from Passion for Halloween. And not too long after that, at just 19 years old, Benanti succeeded Rebecca Luker as Maria von Trapp in a Broadway revival of The Sound of Music.

Two decades later, Benanti, now 39 years now, on Broadway in another role identified with Julie Andrews, Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady, having taken over the lead role in Bartlett Sher’s lush and lavish production at Lincoln Center Theater from Lauren Ambrose (who herself gave a lovely performance in the role). Strangely, Eliza is (or is at least supposed to be) a juvenile role, while Maria von Trapp is (or is at least supposed to be) an adult role. It’s a bizarre turn of events that, in a way, reflects Benanti’s rich but chaotic career.

Following The Sound of Music, Benanti (who has a glorious soprano voice) established herself as an ideal person to take on plum roles in major musical revivals, including Eileen Sherwood in Wonderful Town (at City Center Encores! but not Broadway), Cinderella in Into the Woods (where she walked away with the best reviews but unfortunately sustained neck injuries during the production), Claudia in Nine (where, in a reversal of the past, Rebecca Luker ended up replacing Benanti), Louise in Gypsy (opposite Patti LuPone), and Amalia in She Loves Me. There were also some curious stage credits, including Richard Greenberg’s The Violet Hour (which she left during rehearsals), The Wedding Singer (where rumors suggest there were backstage tensions with the creative staff), New York Spring Spectacular at Radio City Music Hall (in which she interacted with a prerecorded, pre-candidate Donald Trump) and Steve Martin’s dud of a comedy Meteor Shower (opposite Amy Schumer).

Benanti has also appeared on television in multiple failed series (The Playboy Club, Go On). Strangely, she did her best television work as Elsa Schrader in the otherwise embarrassing The Sound of Music Live!. Benanti also has an ongoing cameo as Melania Trump on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. In terms of her personal life, Benanti has been married three times (singer-songwriter Chris Barron, actor Steven Pasquale and now Patrick Brown), and she gave birth to a daughter in 2017.

Given her lifelong obsession with musical theater, one expects that playing Eliza Doolittle was a dream role for Benanti. She must have been considered by Sher for the role when he chose the original cast of the Broadway revival. Perhaps Sher was attracted to the vulnerability and radiance that Ambrose brought to the role. Sher had also cast Ambrose as Fanny Brice in a revival of Funny Girl that was scrapped at the last minute due to a lack of money. Interestingly, Kelli O’Hara, who starred in Sher’s revivals of South Pacific and The King and I and is just a bit older than Benanti, ruled herself out as a potential Eliza early on, noting that she had already played the role in a concert production at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall in 2007. It was also widely believed that Anne Hathaway was at one point expected to play Eliza opposite Kevin Kline as Higgins and that those plans somehow fell apart. 

After opening on Broadway, Ambrose received some online criticism after it was announced that she would cut down her weekly schedule from eight to seven performances. Her co-star, Diana Rigg, even made a negative comment in the press about it. (Eliza is a titanic role, and singing it even seven times a week must be hugely challenging). Early in the fall, it was announced that Ambrose would soon depart the role and be replaced by Benanti – and theater geeks went giddy over the news. (For the record, Benanti is also only playing Eliza seven times a week.) I could barely wait to re-attend the production – but I did have to wait.

The producers made a decision to not re-invite critics to re-attend until several other new actors had joined production, including Danny Burstein (replacing Norbert Leo Butz as Alfred P. Doolittle), Rosemary Harris (replacing Rigg as Mrs. Higgins) and Christian Dante White (replacing Jordan Donica as Freddy Eynsford-Hill). Harry Hadden-Paton (himself a surprise casting choice) continues to co-star as Henry Higgins.

A part of me was so enamored by the new cast that I am tempted to declare that the revival is better than ever. But in all fairness, it was a smashing production to begin with, so perhaps it is fairer to conclude that the revival is just as wonderful as ever and well worth a first or second look. After all, My Fair Lady is one of the best-written and most entertaining shows of Broadway’s Golden Age. Like Gypsy or Guys and Dolls, you can enjoy it again and again and again.

Benanti makes every moment count. Every action and reaction has been carefully thought out – though it still all feels visceral and urgent. She does look – if not two decades too old – at least pretty mature to play a dreamy-eyed Cockney flower girl. Perhaps that is why she did not nab the role originally. However, her performance is so rich (in terms of vocal perfection, comic instinct and expressive range) that any misgivings about her age can and should be overlooked. Her age actually enhanced her performance in the penultimate confrontation scene with Hadden-Paton (who is himself 37), with them squaring off and eyeing each other as equals. Benanti’s Eliza is more believable post-transformation, after she has morphed into an assertive “lady,” whereas other Elizas tend to fare better in act one.

Perhaps it is Benanti, or just time spent growing into the role, but I far preferred Hadden-Paton’s performance now over the two times I caught the revival last spring (right before its opening night and right before the Tony Awards). I previously found him stiff and meek, as if he were trying to avoid the misogynistic bullying tone identified with Rex Harrison’s original performance. This time, while I did not find him bullying or misogynistic, he was heated – a true believer in his studies and his way of looking at the world – and unapologetic about his behavior but not cruel. His Higgins is like an out-of-touch political ideologue who argues fervently for his views but has absolutely no common sense. He lacks empathy because he never learned it.

Many people probably suspected that Danny Burstein was going to play Higgins from the start. After all, Burstein appeared in Sher’s productions of South Pacific, Fiddler on the Roof (as Tevye, no less) and Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. Perhaps Burstein’s involvement in the Broadway-bound Moulin Rouge prevented him from taking part in the opening night cast. In any event, Burstein as Doolittle is a no-brainer – a perfect musical comedy match. And to his credit, Burstein’s Doolittle is grittier and more individualized than one might expect. In "A Little Bit of Luck," Burstein reminded me of Falstaff philosophizing and justifying his shameless way of life with Prince Hal in Henry IV, Part 1. Whereas Diana Rigg was tart as Mrs. Higgins, 91-year-old Rosemary Harris is gentle and considerate. And like Jordan Donica, Christian Dante White is an emotionally exuberant, vocally smashing Freddy. On a return visit, one also comes to appreciate the original cast members in less prominent roles, including Allan Corduner’s congenial Colonel Pickering and Linda Mugleston’s staunch Mrs. Pearce – not to mention Michael Yeargan’s deeply detailed but mobile scenic design, Catherine Zuber’s period-style and character-defining costumes and Donald Holder’s atmospheric lighting.

I for one would love for My Fair Lady to keep running and bring on more performers to tackle Eliza, Higgins and Doolittle. Perhaps O’Hara can get another shot at Eliza after all – or how about Annaleigh Ashford, Sierra Boggess, Laura Osnes, Alexandra Silber, Lauren Worsham, Audra McDonald, Ashley Park or Phillipa Soo? As for Higgins, how about Michael Cerveris, Bryce Pinkham, Christian Borle, Brian Stokes Mitchell or Douglas Sills? Or, if it’s not too late, maybe the Anne Hathaway-Kevin Kline pairing can still happen.