It’s always great when you get the chance to see one of the classic musicals restaged especially when they have been mounted with an eye towards making them relevant to our modern sensibilities. They don’t always work, sometimes the source material just will not support the tweaks the new adapter intends. A recent example of the revival of Oklahoma, which has a sort of love it or hate it response, for the record I loved it. When this new Lincoln Center production of My Fair Lady came to town a few years back I called it a smashing success. I’m not sure if the bar has just moved that much since then or if I’ve just become better attuned, but I now find it to be a less qualified success. It still works, it’s a reminder that great material never goes out of style, but it’s major tonal shift which occurs in the last moments of the musical, feels like it suffers slightly from a case of too little too late. Whatever one thinks of the social politics of the piece, you can’t deny that the songs and plotline are truly classics. This is a richly designed and wonderfully performed production of a musical masterpiece. It is filled with great songs and, as it always has, shines from a rich vein of humor. It’s easy to see why its revival was nominated for 10 Tony Awards, and difficult to see why it lost Best Musical Revival to Once on This Island, which I saw, and while good, it doesn’t hold a candle to My Fair Lady.
My Fair Lady is a musical adaptation of the George Bernard Shaw 1913 play Pygmalion. It tells the exact same story only with musical numbers. Cockney Flower girl Eliza Doolittle is taken on as an experiment by Professor Henry Higgins a phoneticist. He will attempt to turn her into a proper english speaking woman in 6 months time. He is accompanied on this seemingly impossible task by fellow language enthusiast Colonel Pickering. But the road will not be easy, for even when they succeed in how she sounds, they have to contend with what she says. For their first test they will take Eliza to the horse races, she sounds perfectly elegant and proper, while she relays her belief that someone “done in” her relative. This “new small talk” as Higgins tries to pass it off as, acquires a devoted suitor for Eliza in the form of Freddy Eynsford-Hill. Who will spend much of his time thereafter hanging out “on the street where she(sic) lives”. We will also get to know Eliza’s Father who comes looking for money from Higgins to allow her to stay with him. He’s a man with a unique morality and strange logic, which will improve his station in life much to his consternation. At the end of the six months Professor Higgins presents Eliza at an Embassy Ballroom to see if anyone can tell she is not of their class. When the experiment is done, the reality sets in, Eliza should be on her way, but to where and what is she now fit for?Eliza is played my Madeline Powell, she has a lovely voice, and handles the challenging speaking role well. Imagine having to master a nearly indecipherable Cockney accent and then a uber correct posh and proper english voice in the same show. Her standout song is “I Could Have Danced All Night”. Her physical transformation is equally impressive, to the point where when she enters dressed for the Embassy Ball we are as blown over as Higgins and Pickering at the image of elegance before us. Jonathan Grunert as Professor Henry Higgins reminded me of David Tennant, playing a decidedly younger version of the character than we are used to. In a show full of accents and linguistic acrobatics, his is the crystal clear and concise voice that cuts through everything. He sings well and almost more importantly he has the perfect touch when it comes to the humor. The two qualities meld perfectly in his song “Why Can’t the English?”. Nathan Haltiwanger, who plays Freddie, gets the most romantic song to sing “On the Street Where You Live” and while the character is underwritten and serves as more or less a plot device, that is a beautiful and superbly performed song. In terms of comic acting, Michael Hegarty, delivers the goods as Eliza’s Dad Alfie. Also of note is Becky Saunders as Higgins mother, whom along with Hegarty were my favorite performances of the show.
The production itself is beautiful to be sure. The sets by Michael Yeargan are very detailed and beautiful. The London street scene at the beginning starts everything off right. Designed using perspective and layered flats, Yeargan creates a sense of scale that’s very effective. This is clearly a scaled down production from the version that played at the Orpheum in 2020, gone is the set for Higgins’s home which was built on a turntable, instead we have a similar set of Higgins library that simply moves forwards and back as needed, no longer allowing us to follow characters into other rooms. It’s not a terrible loss and doesn’t really affect the story in any way. The backgrounds for the streets as well as at the ballroom are also less elaborate if memory serves. The Costumes by Catherine Zuber are beautiful creations, particularly the outfits work at the horse races and the Ball, with Eliza’s being the standouts in both cases. There were a couple of technical issues with the performance, a curtain that didn’t want to fully rise during the ballroom scene threatened to hold up the production before finally sorting itself out and rising fully. The spotlight operation or perhaps the lighting design by Donald Holder was having issues as well. Characters clearly not lit as well as they were meant to be was an issue in several scenes and actors silhouettes on the backdrop were ugly and distracting. Of course the great source material from the celebrated collaborators of Lerner & Loewe is what really makes the show dazzle. Aside from those minor issues mentioned all of the various elements are brought together under the direction of Bartlett Sher to create a well mounted and enjoyable evening with this classic of musical theater.
My Fair Lady runs through March 25th at The Ordway Center for the Performing Arts as part of the Broadway @ the Ordway season. For more information and to purchase tickets go to https://ordway.org/events/.
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