'iggins and Python among D.C.'s new power players

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WASHINGTON -- If the main thing on everyone's mind in the nation's capital right now is who'll still be living here in '09, at least there are a pair of top-tier musicals in town to take those battered minds off the uncertainties at hand. One is the lively new staging of Lerner and Loewe's "My Fair Lady" at the Kennedy Center's Opera House through Jan. 20. "Lady" is one of those musicals I've seen so often I long ago convinced myself that I never needed to see it again, ever, under any circumstance, not even if Rex Harrison somehow rematerialized and returned to play 'enry 'iggins. Still, I couldn't resist the trek to D.C. to see this new import from Britain's National Theatre for several reasons: The legiter's impeccible credits (direction by Trevor Nunn, choreography and staging by Matthew Bourne, production by Cameron Mackintosh) added to the strong word-of-mouth that preceded it, plus there's the lure of seeing Sally Ann Howes, who famously followed Julie Andrews as "Lady's" Broadway Eliza Doolittle in the 1960s, here making a noteworthy return to the show as Higgins' elegant, saucy and wise mother after all those years. The score of "Lady" alone rates it as nirvana for all of us whose encounters with Broadway musicals have lately, by necessity, been confined to the likes of "Young Frankenstein," "Legally Blonde," "Mary Poppins," "Mamma Mia!" and "Hairspray." When was the last time any of us have had the chance to visit a legit musical and hear a score that can match the one Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe concocted for this humdinger of a show? Think of songs such as "On the Street Where You Live," "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face," "I Could Have Danced All Night," "Wouldn't It Be Loverly?" "Get Me to the Church on Time." The great news is that this Mackintosh-Nunn-Bourne adaptation more than lives up to expectations. They have all given the timeless lady a refreshing new coat of theatrical paint that, for the most part, works wonders. (One exception: unnecessarily alluding to a royal death at the start of the Ascot races scene, which limits the costuming thereafter in the sequence to dark, funereal colors.) The cast, full of impressive British credits but faces that basically were unknown to me, is excellent, headed by a magnificent Christopher Cazenove as Higgins and a delightful Lisa O'Hare, the West End's original Mary Poppins and a ringer for Audrey Hepburn, as Eliza. Howes, however, steals every scene she's in. She looks elegantly Mayfair, makes the most of every one of her witty lines and adds a warmth and charm that does great service to making her son Higgins seem more human than hateful. After this Washington run, "Lady" will be touring the country for the next six months, including lengthy stops in Chicago and Los Angeles. At present there are no plans for it to land on Broadway, but it definitely should. Broadway could use it. The last "Lady" to visit New York was an ill-advised staging 14 years ago with Richard Chamberlain, after which Michael Moriarty briefly took over the lead. The time now seems ripe for another Higgins-Doolittle encounter. ... Also caught in Washington: "Spamalot" at the National Theatre. In the hands of its D.C. cast, headed by Michael Siberry as King Arthur, this "Spam" is every bit as good as its Broadway counterpart, which begins its fourth year at the N.Y. Shubert on March17. Few shows have ever been so funny, or played so well.
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