"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