American musical theater is not opera, even if it is an eclectic outgrowth of that form and often demands voices that might qualify as “operatic.” The failure to understand this, and how it requires different thinking in terms of staging and acting, has been a persistent problem with Lyric Opera of Chicago’s productions since the “Broadway at Lyric” initiative began five years ago. And as lavishly designed and staged as much of this “My Fair Lady” might be, the problem remains, with much of it involving the overall directorial concept.

‘MY FAIR LADY’
Somewhat recommended
When: Through May 21
Where: Civic Opera House,
20 N. Wacker
Tickets: $22 – $199
Info: (312) 827-5600;
www.lyricopera.org/myfairlady
Run time: 3 hours with one intermission

Eliza Doolittle (Lisa O’Hare, in polka-dot dress), with Mrs. Higgins (Helen Carey, in green) and her son, Professor Henry Higgins (Richard E. Grant), in the Lyric Opera of Chicago production of “My Fair Lady.” (Photo: Todd Rosenberg Photography)

There is no disputing that this 1956 Lerner and Loewe classic, widely considered to be the most “perfect” of all musicals, is a glittering gem, with far more dialogue than most musicals (especially the sung-through shows of recent decades), but all of it sparkling with immense brilliance and wit. Of course much of that dialogue and the lyrics, too, have been “lifted” almost verbatim from George Bernard Shaw’s play “Pygmalion.” And you can’t do better than that.

But this production, initially directed by Robert Carsen for Paris’s Theatre de Chatelet (as part of a now decade-long effort to introduce the American musical to French audiences, who never had much of a taste for them until recently), suffers from a rather stiffly presentational quality that might in part be attributable to the enormity of the Civic Opera House stage, where it opened Saturday night. The Broadway houses for which such shows were created tend to be smaller and more intimate spaces. Yet size itself is not the problem, as evidenced, for example, by the superb grand-scale shows at Aurora’s Paramount Theatre. (This American premiere “revival” has been staged by Olivier Fredj.)

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Crucial to achieving intimacy is not only the scale of the scenery, but how each scene literally connects to the next. No one would argue with the elegance of Tim Hatley’s shades-of-white, Georgian-style facades and interiors, but in many ways they dwarf the actors and push them too far upstage. And too often, while important scenes are still underway, massive curtain walls come down here, leaving the actors stranded downstage as set changes are enacted, unseen, behind them. This is a huge distraction, and something most contemporary productions avoid.

An even more crucial source of intimacy has to do with the performers’ palpable chemistry. And while there are many individual performances of great skill here, too often both the physical and emotional connection between  characters is missing.

There also is a disunity of styles. There is straightforward (if rather perfunctory) realism in the scenes between the flower-girl-turned-duchess Eliza Doolittle (the altogether lovely Lisa O’Hare, a vivid actress-singer with a warm, wide-ranging voice, whose dance training is evident throughout) and her phonetics teacher Professor Henry Higgins (Richard E. Grant, the widely known British actor familiar from countless movies and high-profile television series, whose diction is ideal but whose vocal timbre is thin). But then, out of nowhere, comes choreographer Lynn Page’s oddly stylized dance sequence for “Get Me to the Church on Time,” which is notably ingenious but out of sync with the rest of the show. (Page’s deft take on the chorus of emotionally suppressed, upper-crust English attendees at the Ascot races works far better.)

And then there is this, in what some might describe as a proto-feminist story (although aspects of that label are debatable, especially given the appended final moments of the show). For while Higgins is the epitome of the narcissistic, chauvinist bachelor who is far more at ease with other men than with women, there must be a spark between him and Eliza, and that is mostly lacking. O’Hare gains fire as the show progresses, hitting her peak in the Ascot scene in which she very brilliantly responds to greetings from those gathered for a pre-race tea with the parrot-like intonations from Higgins’ drills — a hilarious moment unlike any previous version of the scene I’ve encountered. She also does a fine job “getting a bit of her own back” in a liberated rant against the man.

Major supporting characters are skillful here, but hardly distinctive, with Bryce Pinkham bringing his soaring tenor to the role of the inept, aristocratic Freddy Eynsford-Hill; Nicholas Le Prevost as Higgins’ gentlemanly pal, Col. Pickering; Donald Maxwell as Alfred P. Doolittle, Eliza’s working-class philosopher dad who “can’t afford middle-class morals”; and Michael Joseph Mitchell (done up in a wonderfully laugh-inducing wig) as Higgins’ ex-student, Zoltan Kartpathy, a smarmy little Hungarian linguist who senses Eliza is not who she is said to be.

Helen Carey is superb as Higgins’ mother, who makes no apologies for her son. And veteran Chicago actress Cindy Gold puts a fresh spin on the role of Higgins’ housekeeper, Mrs. Pearce, displaying a bit of that woman’s own hidden rebellion and also forging an almost maternal bond with Eliza that is far from the usual stiff propriety.

Carmen Roman, Sara Sevigny, Peggy Roeder, David Lively and Bill McGough are among the other Chicago actors in the 56-person cast, which also includes several former members of Hubbard Street among the dancers. And Anthony Powell has created nearly 300 eye-popping costumes for this vast ensemble.

Conductor David Chase expertly leads the large orchestra. But the thrill of hearing the show’s overture — a grand reminder that every one of the songs to come has become part of our musical theater DNA — was undercut by non-stop talking and mobile phone activity among the audience, as well as some very annoying last-minute seating.

To steal that essential lyric from “My Fair Lady” that asks “Why can’t a woman be more like a man?,” there is this question: Why can’t an opera-house production of a musical be more like the Broadway baby it was devised to be?

Donald Maxwell (center) plays Alfred P. Doolittle in Lyric Opera of Chicago’s production of “My Fair Lady.” (Photo: Todd Rosenberg Photography)