That’s even more evident with the other principal holdover, Allan Corduner, as Higgins’s pal Pickering. Together the two men have developed a delightful meta-narrative from glances and gestures that connect the dots of an underwritten relationship.
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If the newcomers, other than Eliza, do not have as much opportunity to deliver distinctively original impressions, they make pointed adjustments along the margins. Mr. Burstein, following Norbert Leo Butz as the dustman with the soul of a philosopher, drives home the character’s rhetorical intelligence; I heard, perhaps for the first time, the speech rhythms (“I put it to you, and I leave it to you”) that so impress Higgins.
And as Freddy Eynsford-Hill, Mr. White brings a full-throated tenor (his “On the Street Where You Live” is terrific) that complements a giddy, almost unbridled enthusiasm. This makes for less of a comment on effete society, as Jordan Donica’s hilariously twitty take on the character suggested, than a satire on the deracination of love.
But it is the recasting of the smallest principal role that makes the most touching difference, and like everything connected to Ms. Harris’s stage presence, her success as Mrs. Higgins cannot be pinned down. Of course, one is so delighted to see her, at 91, some 67 years after her Broadway debut, carrying on with such aplomb. But it’s more than that. Ms. Harris has found a way into a role that has resisted most previous exploration, and then carried it off with exquisite taste. With little fuss and fewer words, she sketches a woman whose independence and complacency help explain her son’s more toxic versions of each.
When Higgins, distraught over Eliza’s departure, cries, “What am I to do?” she answers sweetly but without undue sympathy, “Do without, I suppose.” She’s not about to waste her time trying to change someone who does not want to be changed.
Wanted and unwanted change are exactly what “My Fair Lady,” like “Pygmalion” before it, is about. I mean change in individuals, of course, but also, as this blooming revival and its success make clear, in society. As such, its portrait of bullies and resistance may never wear thin. At least not this year.