Both outcomes seem possible in Harry Hadden-Paton’s wily interpretation, which puts the character’s mansplaining, blowhard ways in context. Younger than the typical Higgins (but more the age Shaw imagined), Mr. Hadden-Paton, best known for playing unambiguous good guys on “Downton Abbey” and “The Crown,” makes sense of the character’s on-off switch of vulnerability and hauteur. He is a baby.
This makes him more coherent and potentially more forgivable; he, too, is a captive of his gender and class. As Ms. Ambrose’s Eliza completes her metamorphosis, increasing in stature and radiance and vocal power, he grows more baffled and petulant, more protective of his privilege.
That privilege is on full display in this typically deluxe Lincoln Center Theater production. It has by now become almost unremarkable — until you look elsewhere on Broadway — that the company has sprung for 29 musicians to play the original, unimprovable orchestrations by Robert Russell Bennett and Phil Lang. Mercifully, the excellent work of the music director, Ted Sperling, is preserved in Marc Salzberg’s understated and naturally balanced sound design.
Balance if not understatement is the production’s visual hallmark too; Mr. Sher alternates between very spare, contemporary stage pictures and Higgins’s imposing (and rotating) Wimpole Street townhouse. This alternation provides the wow factor we expect at Lincoln Center — the house heaves into view like the ship in Mr. Sher’s 2015 production of “The King and I” — but also serves a thematic purpose.
At every turn the designers (sets by Michael Yeargan, costumes by Catherine Zuber, lighting by Donald Holder) ask us to consider the economic contrasts that govern Eliza’s world. Higgins’s home is a sybarite’s mansion, crowded with servants and modern art. The scene in which Eliza practices her shaky new identity at the opening day of the Ascot races — one of the greatest comic sequences in all musicals — is a gorgeous study of silver and lavender in elegant, forbidding silhouettes.
But as Eliza’s father, Alfred, faces marriage — in an exciting if slightly odd version of “Get Me to the Church on Time,” complete with male cancan dancers in drag — we watch as the shabby tavern that helped maintain his status among the “undeserving poor” flips around to become the shabby church that will deliver him into the worse fate of middle class morality. It’s a charming touch in Christopher Gattelli’s choreography that Alfred (Norbert Leo Butz) is carried off at the end of the number as if on a funeral bier.
The casting of a star like Mr. Butz in a less-than-starring role may at first seem like overkill; the musical reduces Alfred’s role significantly from its prominence in the play. But with less stage time, the supporting characters have to do more exacting work. Mr. Butz, a double Tony Award winner, is just about the only actor I know who could sell two brassy showstoppers while at the same time suggesting the mind of an “original moralist” and the ruthlessness of a man for whom a daughter is just a form of capital. Even his dancing is philosophical.
But all of the supporting roles are smartly considered. As Freddy, the déclassé twit who falls for Eliza and keeps singing “On the Street Where You Live,” Jordan Donica makes an unabashedly silly foil, a man with too much polish and not enough substance. Allan Corduner as Pickering delicately sketches a more complex inner life than is usually permitted the character.
And though Diana Rigg as Higgins’s mother is the definition of luxury casting, as a former Eliza (in the 1974 West End “Pygmalion” with Alec McCowen) she automatically suggests a kinship with her son’s pupil that locks their cross-class solidarity into place. A suffragist march that winds through one of the ensemble scenes underlines the idea.
Such telltales of a feminist reading are not merely opportune; they are accurate to Shaw’s intent. It was he who had Pickering ask whether Higgins is a “man of good character where women are concerned” — to which Higgins in essence responds: There’s no such thing. Higgins, for all his brutishness, understands that relations between the sexes have been hopelessly muddled by social constructs of gender and class; as a wealthy intellectual he can try, as Shaw did, to abstain from the mess entirely.
But “My Fair Lady,” being a classic musical and thus nearly synonymous with romance, keeps complicating that resolve. Infamously, Lerner and Loewe borrowed the ending that was tacked onto the 1939 film without Shaw’s prior approval: the one in which Eliza returns to Higgins’s study as if to become his helpmeet if not his wife.
I don’t want to spoil this marvelous, redemptive revival’s resolution of that discrepancy. But Mr. Sher’s final image shows how history — even if it took 100 years — would eventually start to outgrow its brutes, and how it still might do so compassionately, by teaching them a lesson.