Fairly Magnificent

Trevor Nunn's production of My Fair Lady

Three years ago Trevor Nunn, the artistic director of Britain's Royal National Theatre, brought an exhilarating freshness to a revival of Oklahoma!. So successful was his portrait of farmers and cowboys feuding over the fate of an emerging state that he's set to restage his production on Broadway next March. Now he's repeated the feat. Nunn's hit production of Lerner and Loewe's My Fair Lady, which transfers from the National to the Theatre Royal Drury Lane on July 21, proves that the show isn't just a gorgeous medley of witty, hummable songs—though they doubtless help explain its lasting appeal—but that it truly has something to say to an England and a world still split by tribal loyalties, class divisions, and even accents.

Matthew Bourne's choreography sums up the differences: vegetable-market porters clatter jubilantly around with dustbin lids for tap shoes, nobs at the Ascot races sedately mimic high-stepping Thoroughbreds. Even the skeptical George Bernard Shaw, from whose Pygmalion the musical was adapted in 1956, would surely have admired the imaginative punch and purpose of the dances, the performances, everything.

You certainly feel that Martine McCutcheon's Eliza loses as much as she gains from the elocution lessons she receives from Jonathan Pryce's Higgins. As a native Cockney herself, the actress makes a rawer, tougher, yet dreamier flower girl than either of her famous predecessors, Julie Andrews onstage and Audrey Hepburn on-screen. Her Eliza eventually looks stunning and behaves exquisitely, but she is clearly uneasy at joining the ranks of the genteel.

Thanks to a nagging virus, Ms. McCutcheon missed several early performances; but on opening night at the National there was no doubting her talent or her rapport with Mr. Pryce. As for Pryce, he makes a less tetchy and tyrannical Higgins than Rex Harrison, who created the role. This Higgins is also more serene in his self-belief and undoubtedly more serious in his faith in the beauty and majesty of English. He sings more melodiously, too.

This humanizes the character, but doesn't sentimentalize him. I don't want to spoil the closing moments for anyone planning to visit the Drury Lane soon; but when this Eliza faces this Higgins across the drawing room, you know from her body language that she won't be spending eternity fetching his slippers—and you know from his complicit smile that he accepts her hard-won independence.