Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Also see Arty's review of Moth
Thanks to the Oscar winning 1964 film version, the show is known to a vast audience far beyond those able to see it live on Broadway or in any of the many touring, regional theater, community theater, and school productions that have been staples for the past seven decades. There have also been four Broadway revivals since the original run. The most recent and long-lived of those revivals was produced by Lincoln Center Theater and ran from April 2018 - July 2019. A national tour of that production is at the Orpheum Theatre as part of the current Broadway on Hennepin season, and nothing could be more, in the words of heroine Eliza Doolittle, loverly.
Eliza is a poor, smudge-faced flower girl, hawking blooms to well-heeled ladies and gentlemen at Covent Garden in London around the dawn of the 20th century. Alan Jay Lerner's book, based on the play Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw, pits Eliza and her strong cockney accent against Henry Higgins, a stuffed-shirt professor of phonetics who has passion for no woman or man, but only for the English language in its purest form. Higgins wagers a colleague, Colonel Pickering, that in six months he can transform Eliza by teaching her to speak the King's English, so much that she could pass for an upper crust member of society at the posh Embassy Ball.
For Liza, the chance to reside in Higgins' warm and comfy home, have a stylish wardrobe brought in for her to wear (Higgins wouldn't stand for her to loll about in her own ragged clothes), have meals prepared by servants, and stay clear of tough sorts out on the streets is too much to pass up. She agrees, and the game is on. Along the way, Eliza's father, the comical inebriate Alfred Doolittle, tries to reap some benefit from what he sees as Eliza's windfall, and a heartsick young man named Freddie falls desperately in love with Eliza, who barely notices him. Henry Higgins' opinionated mother, a woman with an unusually strong independent streak for her era, chimes in on the arrangements between her son and his protegee.
But the primary thrust of the piece is the relationship between Higgins and Eliza. What are his obligations to her if he in fact changes her so much that she can no longer function in the low class she was born into, yet is not an accepted member of the upper class she has learned to emulate? And what of the feelings that develop between the mentor and pupil? For Higgins, there is appreciation, admiration, and an ungainly sense of ownership. Eliza in turns experiences resentment, respect, elation and anger. What about affection between them? As written, the show's final scene suggests that such a bond of affection depends on Eliza accepting a submissive role to Higgin's arch male chauvinism, which has left many observers who otherwise admire the show to find fault with it in today's "woke" arena.
Lincoln Center Theater Resident director Bartlett Sher has previously brought new luster to revivals of South Pacific and The King and I. For his My Fair Lady, Sher has made a very slight modification to the show's final moment that changes the conclusions to be drawn about Eliza and what she is willing to accept from a manHiggins or any otherwho wishes to be in her life. Both the original and the revival's new ending leave their future together open to interpretation.
Beyond that noteworthy change, Sher directs his Eliza, beautifully realized and sung by Shereen Ahmed, to be a strong woman, never veering away from self-respect, no matter what her station or circumstances. His Higgins is younger than has typically been the case, allowing for a reasonable prospect of mutual attraction. As played to perfection by Laird Mackintosh, Higgins is still a confirmed misogynist, yet he and Eliza have an undeniable chemistry together.
Sher's Lincoln Center musical productions are lavishly conceived, with sets by Michael Yeargan, stunning Tony Award-winning costumes designed by Catherine Zuber, which include gorgeous hats for the ladies at Ascot, and lighting designed by Donald Holder that creates a spectrum of tones and moods. The show opens with Eliza alone on stage with no set at all, establishing her as the center of all that is to come, and then panels drop in to create the bustling Covent Garden setting where Higgins and Eliza first meet, a jaw-dropping realization. A massive revolving set piece displays the two-level library in Higgins' home, in which most of Eliza's tutoring takes place, as well as other rooms. Settings for the embassy, where Eliza's transformation is put to the test, the elegant garden room in Mrs. Higgins' estate, and a pub and streetscape where Alfred Doolittle spends most of his time are also beautiful, but never so heavy handed or busy as to overwhelm the narrative or the music.
As for the music, My Fair Lady has always won audiences over with its glorious score, with lyrics by Lerner and music by Frederick Loewe. It unspools one splendid song after another: the wistfulness of "Wouldn't It Be Loverly," the haughty cynicism of "Why Can't the English?," the joyous release of rising tension in "The Rain in Spain," the elation of "I Could Have Danced All Night," the full-out romanticism of "On the Street Where You Live," the boldly demanding "Show Me," and the yearning of "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face." All are solid "A" level, and sound glorious played by a lavish eighteen-piece orchestra under the baton of conductor John Bell.
Then there are two rollicking numbers turned over to Alfred and his rowdy friends, "With a Little Bit of Luck" and "Get Me to the Church on Time." Both are brimming with humor and good cheer that extends into remarkably inventive dance numbers choreographed by Christopher Gattelli, who previously displayed his talent for setting the working class to dazzling footwork in Newsies. My Fair Lady also includes not one, but two songs in which Higgins firmly states his disparaging views of women"I'm an Ordinary Man" and "A Hymn to Him," with wittily devised lyrics and an almost martial musicality that make them wholly enjoyable in spite of their distasteful messages.
This national tour cast shines, with Shereen Ahmed's Eliza Doolittle and Laird Mackintosh's Henry Higgins both performing at levels that would easily meet the mark on Broadway. Both are top drawer throughout, but each has a stand-out moment that raises the temperature: for Ahmed, "I Could Have Danced All Night"; for Mackintosh, "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face."
Adam Grupper is terrific as Alfred Doolittle, ribald, self-absorbed by disarming, and putting heart and soul into his two big numbers. Sam Simahk, as Freddie, conveys the earnest naivete of his ardor for Eliza, and gives a heartfelt voice to "On the Street Where You Live." Leslie Alexander ably expresses the staunch demeanor of Mrs. Higgins, who will broach no nonsense from her son Henry. She also looks splendid in those elaborate dresses, coats and hats. Gayton Scott provides some warmth to compensate for Higgins' iciness as his housekeeper, Mrs. Pearce. At the performance I attended, Patrick Kerr ably filled in as Colonel Pickering, a role usually played by Kevin Pariseau.
Is My Fair Lady still "the perfect musical?" Since 1956, the form has travelled through rock musicals, Sondheim, A Chorus Line, Andrew Lloyd Webber, and Lin-Manuel Miranda. "Perfect" is a matter of your point of reference, with room for multiple musicals to be perfect within different contexts. My Fair Lady is a product of The Golden Age, the early 1940s through the mid-1960s, and delivers all of the hallmarks of the era's best work, but perfect may be a stretch. The two big numbers given to Alfred, while wonderfully entertaining, really don't advance the narrative. One can take issue with Higgins' rantings against both women and the lower classes, certainly not acceptable views in today's social climate, but one can also see his chauvinistic and classist declarations as satiric jabs against the stodginess of the old guard. Surely we know the progressive George Bernard Shaw did not intend for those attitudes to be admired when he created Higgins for Pygmalion.
My Fair Lady remains a jewel in the crown of golden age musicals and certainly hold a place among the best works of musical theater of any stripe. If there was any doubt, Lincoln Center Theater's production and the current touring company make the case for My Fair Lady's enduring place as an at least near-perfect musical.
My Fair Lady runs through March 8, 2020, at the Orpheum Theatre, 910 Hennepin Avenue, Minneapolis MN. Tickets: $35.00 - $155.00. Dynamic ticket pricing, prices may change at any time based on demand. For ticket information, including availability of student and educator rush tickets, call 800-982-2787 or visit hennepintheatretrust.org. For tour information, please visit https://myfairladyontour.com.
Book and Lyrics: Alan Jay Lerner, adapted from George Bernard Shaw's play Pygmalion; Music: Frederick Loewe; Director: Bartlett Sher; Choreography: Christopher Gattelli; Set Design: Michael Yeargan; Costume Design: Catherine Zuber; Lighting Design: Donald Holder; Sound Design: Mark Salzberg; Hair and Wig Design: Tom Watson; Orchestrations: Robert Russel Bennet and Phil Lang; Dance Arrangements: Trude Rittman; Tour Orchestrations: Josh Clayton; Musical Director and Conductor: John Bell; Music Supervision: Ted Sperling; Music Coordination: Talitha Fehr and David Lai; Associate Music Director: Luke Flood; Casting: Telsey + Company, Laura Wade C.S.A; Associate Director: Sari Ketter; Associate Choreographer: Mark Myars; Associate Set Designer: Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams; Production Stage Manager: Donavan Dolan.
Cast: Shereen Ahmed (Eliza Doolittle), Mark Aldrich (Loverly Quartet/Higgins' Butler/Lord Boxington/Footman/ensemble), Leslie Alexander (Mrs. Higgins), Rajeer Alford (ensemble), Colin Anderson (Loverly Quartet/Higgins' Butler/ensemble), Polly Baird (ensemble), Mark Banik (Bartender /ensemble), Michael Biren (Steward/Constable/ensemble), Shavey Brown (Loverly Quartet/ Steward/ Constable/ensemble), Anne Brummel (Lady Boxington/Hostess/ensemble), Mary Callanan (Mrs. Hopkins/Higgins' Maid/ensemble), Jennifer Evans (Queen of Transylvania/ensemble), Nicole Ferguson (Higgins' Maid/ensemble), Juliane Godfrey (Higgins' Maid/ensemble),Colleen Grate (Flower Girl/ Higgins' Maid/ensemble), Adam Grupper (Alfred Doolittle), Patrick Kerr (ensemble), Brandon Leffler (Charles/Mrs. Higgins' Servant/ensemble), Laird Mackintosh (Henry Higgins), Wade McCollum (Selsey Man/Professor Zoltan Karpathy), Nathalie Marrable (ensemble), William Michaels (Loverly Quartet/ Jamie/Footman/ ensemble), Rommel Pierre O'Choa (Mrs. Higgins' Servant/ensemble), Kevin Pariseau (Colonel Pickering), JoAnna Rhinehart (Mrs. Eynsford-Hill/ensemble), Gayton Scott (Mrs. Peale), Sam Simahk (Freddie Eynsford-Hill), Fana Tesfagiorgis (Ms. Clara Eynsford-Hill/ensemble). Michael Williams (ensemble).