Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay


My Fair Lady
National Tour
Review by Patrick Thomas

Also see Patrick's review of The Importance of Being Earnesta


Kevin Pariseau, Laird Mackintosh and Shereen Ahmed
Photo by Joan Marcus
There's a lot of talk about "wokeness" these days, a term that seems to have replaced "politically correct" in media parlance as the term du jour for the—at least to those on the far right of the political spectrum—philosophy of being committed to progressive values like social justice and equality. Generally, works of musical theatre tend to stay away from the political (with some marvelous exceptions, such as South Pacific and Hamilton), and when they do go there, tend to be on the more progressive side. My Fair Lady, in a a glorious touring production currently at BroadwaySF's Orpheum Theatre (imported from Lincoln Center) might be one of the least "woke" musicals ever. At least until director Bartlett Sher got hold of it.

If you've never seen the show (or the film, starring Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn), it's based on the far more progressive and satirical Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw. Cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle is taken in by phonetician Henry Higgins after he proposes a wager to fellow linguist Colonel Pickering that he can transform the "guttersnipe" and have her pass as a lady at the annual Embassy Ball by teaching her received pronunciation and manners.

Higgins (played here with delicious haughtiness by Laird Mackintosh) is undeniably a misogynist. He berates Eliza with a neverending stream of invective, calling her a "squashed cabbage leaf" who is "deliciously low" and has "no right to live." He insults every aspect of her being: not only how she speaks, but how she moves, acts and dresses. He's rude and manner-less but, in his defense, treats everyone with equal disdain. (He's not unlike the character of Sheldon Cooper in TV's "The Big Bang Theory," a savant seemingly unaware of the importance of social graces and tolerance.) But in Sher's capable hands—and with the assistance of a marvelous cast—Eliza, despite the horrid treatment she receives, becomes more of a "lady" than even Higgins himself ever dreamed she could be.

Shaw himself never imagined that Pygmalion would ever be seen as a romance. He even wrote a postscript to the play that spoke of Eliza's future, and it most decidedly did not end up with the two riding off into the sunset in a conclusion obtained from the "ragshop in which Romance keeps its stock of 'happy endings' to misfit all stories."

Yet for all that, there is still a lot of subsumed romance in My Fair Lady (not the least of which might be the intellectual love affair between Higgins and Pickering), and a bit of wildly out in the open romance, at least in the music. The songs "Show Me," and "On the Street Where You Live" certainly count, though some have said the latter number can be read as a little stalker-ish.

But let's put the wokeness aside and enjoy the sumptuousness of this production. The sets by Michael Yeargan are spectacular. Though I wish the books in Higgins's library were actual tomes (or at least their spines), the house he has created for the Professor rotates on a giant turntable to reveal the rooms of his mansion and to allow for characters to move easily between the spaces, helping to keep the action always moving forward. Even at nearly three hours, the show rockets along. The costumes by Catherine Zuber are nothing short of stunning. Her budget could likely fund the entire production of pretty much any other show in the Bay Area, with the possible exception of the tour of Jesus Christ Superstar currently at the Golden Gate Theatre.

Shereen Ahmed brings a subtle power to the role of Eliza that she builds piece by piece over the course of the show. Even from the beginning her Eliza is not one to be abused or wrongly accused of being something she is not. In her way, she is a "lady" from her very first lines. (She also does some exceptional dialect work, with her accent morphing slowly from a guttural Cockney to a more polite, middle-class manner, to the enunciated precision of the British upper classes.) But it's her singing voice that really pulls you in. Ahmed not only (seemingly) effortlessly hits the high notes, but also displays a richness of tone and a depth of resonance that so many sopranos seem to lack.

Mackintosh's Henry Higgins is, in keeping with his character, marvelously precise. (And his profile puts one in mind of a young Rex Harrison.) He moves like he owns the world—and, to his mind, he does. As his partner in transformation/manipulation, Kevin Pariseau's Colonel Pickering brings an engaging and gentle nature to the proceedings, guiding Higgins to a more humane way of being human.

If any actor steals this show, it would be Adam Grupper in the role of Alfred Doolittle, Eliza's ne'er-do-well father. He gets two of the best songs ("With a Little Bit of Luck" and "Get Me to the Church on Time") and sells them with everything he's got. His marvelously expressive face twists and scowls and beams and cajoles. His eyes alternately glisten and squint as he works every angle he can to maintain his life of indolence and recreational drinking.

On its surface, My Fair Lady is overtly sexist and decidedly unwoke. But in this scintillating production, Shaw's original satire of classism and sexism come shining through, thanks to director Bartlett Sher and the efforts of a world-class cast and creative team.

My Fair Lady runs through November 28, 2021, at SHN's Orpheum Theatre, 1 Taylor Street, San Francisco CA. Tickets range from $56-$256, and are available by calling the box office at 888-746-1799 or by visiting broadwaysf.com. For more information on the tour, visit www.myfairladyontour.com.


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