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‘My Fair Lady’ review: It’s simply lover-ly

Harry Hadden-Paton and Lauren Ambrose in Lincoln Center

Harry Hadden-Paton and Lauren Ambrose in Lincoln Center Theater's "My Fair Lady." Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

WHAT “My Fair Lady”

WHERE Vivian Beaumont Theater, 150 W. 65th St.

INFO $87-$177; 212-239-6200, telecharge.com

BOTTOM LINE Beautiful, vibrant revival of a beloved classic.

Anticipation for the latest revival of “My Fair Lady” was high — the Lerner and Loewe classic, from 1956, had been absent from Broadway for nearly 25 years — but not entirely positive. After all, the story of a Cockney flower girl being bullied into learning upper-class speech by an abrasive male professor could feel out of touch, to put it mildly, in our modern climate.

Happily, this Lincoln Center Theater production starring Lauren Ambrose and Harry Hadden-Paton is everything it needs to be, and quite a bit more.

If you saw Lincoln Center’s “The King and I” and “South Pacific,” you know to expect a lavish spectacle. You won’t be disappointed. The set, by Michael Yeargan, got applause not once but three times at a recent matinee, and the gasp-inducing costumes are by Catherine Zuber.

But lavish does not mean slavish: Director Bartlett Sher returned to the story’s origin in the George Bernard Shaw play “Pygmalion” and made it more acceptable for our times without messing with the musical, but this isn’t a “revisal.”

Ambrose, still best known for playing Claire Fisher on HBO’s “Six Feet Under,” makes an assured Broadway musical debut as Eliza Doolittle, who morphs from grimy-cheeked duckling to resplendent swan over the course of the show. And while she doesn’t have the most powerful pipes, her singing is nuanced and evocative on “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?” and “I Could Have Danced All Night.”

Her Eliza is a terrific foil for Professor Henry Higgins, whom the British Hadden-Paton portrays not so much as a tyrant but as a science nerd who hurls insults in a semi-ironic way, possibly because he just likes the way they sound. By the end, he’s succeeded beyond his wildest dreams and Eliza has become her own person — this is not a love story, but one of self-discovery. (It helps that Ambrose and Hadden-Paton are close in age, so the impression of an older man intimidating a younger woman is gone.)

If the central relationship is the jewel of “My Fair Lady,” it gets a glorious setting here, from the high production values to the deluxe casting. Diana Rigg gives Henry Higgins’ mother the same mischievous twinkle in the eye that she gave Lady Olenna Tyrell in “Game of Thrones.” As Eliza’s father, Norbert Leo Butz leads a high-energy “Get Me to the Church on Time” with tireless zest.

And of course, the 29-piece orchestra, conducted by Ted Sperling, makes the songs shine — and “My Fair Lady” has one of the greatest ratios of hits to numbers of any musical. We could have listened to them all night.

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