Updated: Mar 25, 2022
"My Fair Lady," winner of six Tony Awards, and now presently on tour at Segerstrom Center for the Arts through January 23rd, is the best and most unlikely of musicals. The melange of songs in the show are literate and beloved; some romantic, some comic, some nonsense, some surprisingly philosophical, but every single one—wonderful. Alan Jay Lerner's book wisely retains a great deal of "Pygmalion" by George Bernard Shaw, himself inspired by Ovid's Metamorphoses Book X, who also falls in love with his own creation.
This fusion functions at such an elevation of sophistication and wit that when poor smitten Freddy (Sam Simahk) sings "On the Street Where You Live," a knock-out performance that would distinguish any other musical, his sincerity seems childlike compared to the emotional fencing match between the guarded Higgins and the wary Eliza. But it is predictable that in a musical that has love as its buried theme, no one ever kisses, or seems about to.
Set in London, 1912, the story involves a meeting of two egos, one belonging to self-centered linguist Henry Higgins, the other, no less titanic, to the flower girl Eliza Doolittle. It is often mistakenly said that they collaborate because Higgins (Laird MacKintosh) decides to improve the young waif’s Cockney accent. In fact, it is Eliza (Shereen Ahmed) who takes the initiative, presenting herself at Henry's bachelor quarters to sign up for lessons: "I know what lessons cost as well as you do, and I'm ready to pay."
Even in this early scene, it is Eliza's will that drives the plot; Higgins might have tinkered forever with his phonetic alphabet and his recording devices if Eliza hadn't insisted on action. She took seriously his boast the night before, in Covent Garden: "You see this creature with her curbstone English? The English that will keep her in the gutter till the end of her days? Well, sir, in six months, I could pass her off as a duchess at an Embassy Ball. I could even get her a job as a lady's maid or a shop assistant, which requires better English." This final paradox is what Eliza hears, and it supplies her inspiration: "I want to be a lady in a flower shop instead of sellin' at the corner of Tottenham Court Road. But they won't take me unless I can talk more genteel."
It is her ambition, not Henry's, that sets the plot in motion, including the professor's bet with his fellow linguist Pickering, who says he'll pay for the lessons if Higgins can transform her speech. Higgins' response will thrum below the action for most of the play: "You know, it's almost irresistible. She's so deliciously low. So horribly dirty." But if this musical tells a Cinderella story about an impoverished flower girl who goes to the ball and is proclaimed a princess, it is also the account of a cold, calculating experiment in social engineering that threatens to run amok. You'll notice, for example, that when Higgins gets around to the serious business of phonetics lessons, he drops Eliza in a long chair to practice her vowels, then tips her backward cavalierly as if he was going to bear down on her like a diabolical doctor yanking molars.
"My Fair Lady," with its script drawn from Shaw, is trickier and more challenging than most other stage musicals; the dialogue not only incorporates Shavian theory, wit and ideology, but requires Ms. Ahmed’s Eliza to master a transition from Cockney to the Queen's English. All of this she does flawlessly and with heedless confidence, in a performance that contains great passion. Consider the scenes where she finally explodes at Higgins' misogynist disregard, returns to the streets of Covent Garden, and finds she fits in nowhere. "I sold flowers," she tells Mr. MacKintosh’s Henry late in their crisis. "I didn't sell myself. Now you've made a lady of me, I'm not fit to sell anything else."
Astonished that the ungrateful Eliza has stalked out of his home, Higgins asks in a song, "Why can't a woman be more like a man?" He tracks her to her mother's house, where the aristocratic Mrs. Higgins (Leslie Alexander) orders him to behave himself. "What?" he asks his mother. "Do you mean to say that I'm to put on my Sunday manners for this thing that I created out of the squashed cabbage leaves of Covent Garden?" Yes, she does. Higgins realizes he loves Eliza, but even in the play's famous last line after they resolve differences, he perseveres as a defiant bachelor: "Eliza? Where the devil are my slippers?" As the stage goes to black, she doesn’t answer. She doesn’t find the slippers; she doesn’t go upstairs. She seems to be making her way off stage to the masking curtains. So, it remains an open question: does Eliza actually stays to listen to what he says…or not?
Few in any audience would doubt that "My Fair Lady" is a masterpiece. And nothing can be found at fault in the actual performances. As Eliza, Ms. Ahmed convincingly transforms from a rough and raw street vendor to a polished lady of high society. She is thoroughly appealing, sings like an angel, and sustains a fiery spunk and independence throughout the performance.
Consider the production's take on "I Could Have Danced All Night," which a lightheaded Eliza Doolittle sings after mastering Higgins's vocal exercises and winning his approval. As Ms. Ahmed delivers the exultant song, her Eliza is not able to contain herself or her enthusiasm. She is irrepressible, nervously awkward and altogether endearing. Anyone playing Eliza, of course, can expect to be measured against Julie Andrews. But then I'm not sure Ms. Andrews was ever quite this frisky.
In turn, Broadway veteran Mr. MacKintosh is appropriately pompous and disrespectful as Professor Higgins, and his singing is far better than the average performer in the role. Laird MacKintosh is neither the snobbish, peremptory Henry Higgins made famous by Rex Harrison (who was 56 to her 35 at the time), nor the emotionally remote intellectual Leslie Howard played in the 1938 film version of Pygmalion.
This Higgins has all of the required petulance and the outbursts, but he's also surprisingly vulnerable, leading to an unexpected take on the last few scenes. In "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face," taking into account Higgins's heightened talk/sing style, final monologue and wrestling match with himself, Mr. Mackintosh brings to the part the sheer breadth and breath of his celebrated predecessor.
The supporting performances include Kevin Pariseau as the decent and dignified Pickering, speaking up for Eliza; and Adam Grupper as the boisterous, ravaged and sincere father of Eliza, Alfred P. Doolittle, who, according to Higgins, is "the most original moral philosopher in England." In his "Get Me to the Church on Time," the big second-act whoop-de-do, it’s all rambunctiousness and giddy squeals.
Leslie Alexander steals all her scenes as Henry's indomitable mother, and Gayton Scott’s Mrs. Pearce, the housekeeper, is praiseworthy. They both have a perfect delivery of their lines, which, when combined with a healthy dose of dry wit, receives big laughs. The hardworking ensemble also plays multiple parts with ease and delivers some gorgeous harmonies and background.
Catherine Zuber's costumes pack an abundance of exquisite, breath-stopping opulence for Eliza, including a gorgeous beaded dress that she wears to the ball, and lavishly detailed ensembles for the entire cast in the "Ascot Gavotte," the production's incontestable high point. Some of the lockjawed aristocrats who are gathering for a day at the races stroll in from the wings, all dressed in basic white, or some shade thereof. Others, standing almost motionless, remain suspended in the azure throughout the scene. Still others move in slow motion, lofty heads and pompous stares, vintage mother of pearl opera glasses fixed to their heads. They make for an arresting picture, these contented patricians, oh so handsomely attired by Ms. Zuber, as they gaze superciliously at the sights below. The unorthodox staging is also an inspired expression of the class distinctions and social snobberies that lurk at the heart of the show.
Apart from the wonders of its words and music, "My Fair Lady" is a visual triumph, bringing the musical a combination of sumptuousness and detail, from the stylization of the famous Ascot scene to the countless intriguing devices and guages in Higgins' book-lined study. Michael Yeargan's set design, especially with its revolving stage turntable, is indeed elaborate, showing multiple furnished rooms throughout the Higgins household at a glance, evoking the fussy chic of Edwardian England. And there is a rich assortment of moving pieces and props that easily establish the few outdoor scenes.
In fact, this may be one of the rare instances where a musical comes close to or succeeds in surpassing the quality of its original source material. Director Bartlett Sher oversees a fast paced and fluid production, staging each scene well, and Christopher Gattelli’s choreography incorporates a variety of influences, from the decorous waltz at the Embassy Ball to the commoner’s lively bachelor party at the pub for Eliza’s father.
Segerstrom Center for the Arts presents The Lincoln Center Theater Production of “My Fair Lady,” with performance dates January 11th - January 23rd, 2022; Adapted from George Bernard Shaw's play and Gabriel Pascal's motion picture “Pygmalion,” Book and Lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner; Music by Frederick Loewe; Directed by Bartlett Sher; Choreographed by Christopher Gattelli; Musically Directed/Conducted by John Bell; Music Supervision by Ted Sperling; Sets by Michael Yeargan; Costumes by Catherine Zuber; Lighting by Donald Holder; Sound by Marc Salzberg; Hair & Wigs by Tom Watson. THE CAST
Eliza Doolittle: Shereen Ahmed; Henry Higgins: Laird MacKintosh; Col. Pickering: Kevin Pariseau; Mrs. Eynsford-Hill: JoAnna Rhinehart; Mrs. Clara Eynsford-Hill: Aisha Mitchell; Selsey Man: Lee Zarrett; Hoxton Man: William Michals; Frank, The Bartender: Mark Banik; Harry: Patrick Kerr; Jamie: William Michals; Mrs. Higgins: Leslie Alexander; Freddy Eynsford-Hill: Sam Simahk; Alfred P. Doolittle: Adam Grupper; Mrs. Pearce: Gayton Scott; Flower Girl: Colleen Grate; Mrs. Hopkins: Mary Callanan; Higgins’ Butlers: Colin Anderson, Christopher Faison; Higgins’ Maids: Mary Callanan, Nicole Ferguson, Juliane Godfrey, Colleen Grate; Charles: Brandon Block; Stewards: Michael Biren, Gerard M. Williams; Lord Boxington: Christopher Faison; Lady Boxington: Samantha Sturm; Constables: Michael Biren, Gerard M. Williams; Prof. Zoltan Karpathy: Lee Zarrett; Hostess: Samantha Sturm; Footmen: Christopher Faison, William Michals; Queen of Transylvania: Elena Camp; Mrs. Higgins’ Servants: Brandon Block, Rommel Pierre O’Choa; The “Loverly” Quartet: Colin Anderson, Christopher Faison, William Michals and Gerard M. Williams.
Ensemble: Rajeer Alford, Colin Anderson, Mark Banik, Michael Biren, Brandon Block, Mary Callanan, Elena Camp, Christopher Faison, Nicole Ferguson, Juliane Godfrey, Colleen Grate, Patrick Kerr, Nathalie Marrable, William Michals, Aisha Mitchell, Rommel Pierre O’Choa, Keven Quillon, JoAnna Rhinehart, Samantha Sturm, Gerard M. Williams, Minami Yusui. Tickets start at $28. Running time approximately 2 hours, 55 minutes. For ticket information and reservations, please visit: https://www.scfta.org/events/2022/my-fair-lady
Arts & Entertainment Reviewer
The Show Report