Love the sinner but hate the sin is an idea that some church leaders put forth to reconcile Old Testament proscriptions with modern sensibilities. Is this something that also applies to theater, where folks may fancy the music of a beloved classic but recoil from the show itself?
The question bubbles up in "My Fair Lady," the 1956 musical whose Lincoln Center revival tour opened Tuesday at St. Paul's Ordway Center.
"Lady" has a gorgeous score and memorable songs, but one main character belongs in the caveman era. Henry Higgins, the upper crust phonetics professor, sounds like a troglodyte when he insistently sings, "Why Can't a Woman Be More Like a Man?"
In trying to give us a modern explanation for Henry's astringent misogyny, class bias and gruff manners, director Bartlett Sher may have traded one set of challenges for another. His belittling, sneering Henry gestures and speaks hurriedly like someone with severe social anxiety.
That creative choice sharpens the contrast with Eliza Doolittle (Madeline Powell), the Cockney flower girl Henry helps transform from sounding like a "draggle-tailed guttersnipe" to a royal through his speech lessons. But it also makes Henry, played by Jonathan Grunert, more a colorful character than the charismatic leading man that Rex Harrison, Richard Chamberlain and others have shown him to be over the many decades.
And that gap points to the difficulty of putting on some favorite classics in the 21st century. For Eliza is a modern striver keen to develop her potential and make her way in the world. She's eager to learn the lessons from high-born Higgins, who proves himself an overgrown brat.
"My Fair Lady," which takes place in Michael Yeargan's evocative scenography crisply lit by Donald Holder an odd sound mix at Tuesday's opening night performance. Some spoken dialogue evaporated before reaching the audience, including from Higgins and housekeeper Mrs. Pearce (Madeline Brennan). But the sound design by Marc Salzberg and Beth Lake shined during the horse race for "Ascot Gavotte," with the thunderous hooves rounding the auditorium.
Powell soars on her musical numbers, injecting pathos, passion and beauty on "Wouldn't It Be Loverly?" and "I Could've Danced All Night." Her physical transformation is evident in Catherine Zuber's telling costumes, which go from drab tenement rags to a dress that makes her a Cinderella at the ball.
Powell also imbues Eliza's linguistic transition from working class to posh accent with the aesthetics of those before-and-after weight-loss ads. The before pictures usually are poorly lit and discolored while those showing the results are perfectly composed.
Similarly, Powell makes Eliza's dense, mushy-mouthed Cockney sound like it's been passed through mashed potatoes with a dash of sand while her upper-class accent is smooth and clean.
Alfred P. Doolittle (Michael Hegarty), Eliza's dad, also has a major transition of his own in the show and gets a big number with "Get Me to the Church on Time." Hegarty nails that high-spirited pre-wedding showcase, which also features the company executing Christopher Gattelli's splashy choreography.
It's a credit to Grunert's talent that his Higgins repulses, even if the actor subtly undercuts some of the character's callousness. There are some gorgeous smaller characters and moments in the show, including Nathan Haltiwanger's Freddy, who is all frolicsome goodness in "On the Street Where You Live."
The music, sprightly conducted by David Andrews Rogers, reminds us of the pleasures of "My Fair Lady." Now, if only we could get rid of all the dated stuff, the show would offer unqualified joy.
'My Fair Lady'
Who: By Alan Jay Lerner & Frederick Loewe. Directed by Bartlett Sher.
When: 7:30 p.m. Wed.-Fri., 2 & 7:30 p.m. Sat.
Where: 345 Washington St., St. Paul.
Tickets: $44-$131. 651-224-4222 or ordway.org.