Shavey Brown, Mark Aldrich, Shereen Ahmed (center), William Michals, and Colin Anderson in the national tour of My Fair Lady. Photo by Joan Marcus.
A perfectly “lovely” experience awaits all who attend My Fair Lady at the Orpheum Theatre. Alan Jay Lerner wrote the book and lyrics and Frederick Loewe composed the music. The musical is based on George Bernard Shaw’s play and Gabriel Pascal’s motion picture Pygmalion. Director Bartlett Sher provides a largely traditional presentation of this classic musical, but with a feminist bent and a refreshing cast giving new life to this 60+ year old musical.
The story revolves around Henry Higgins (Laird Mackintosh), an expert in the study of phonetics, and Eliza Doolittle (Shereen Ahmed), a gutter street-speaking flower girl in London. Eliza’s speaking is so impaired that the audience can barely make out what she is saying at the beginning of the show. Higgins undertakes the herculean challenge of elevating Eliza’s speaking skills to that of a princess or other high society women. Higgins, however is not motivated by any altruistic concerns for Eliza: he wants to demonstrate that he is a brilliant teacher of phonetics. Assisting Higgins is Colonel Pickering (Kevin Pariseau), another renowned linguistic expert basking in Higgins’ shadow.
The storyline shows us how hard Eliza must work under Higgins’ tutelage for six months to accomplish Higgins’ goal. However, the story really takes second place to the outstanding songs (and their stellar delivery) in the show. These songs include classic tunes like “With a Little Bit of Luck”, “The Rain in Spain”, I Could Have Danced All Night”, “Show Me”, and “Get Me to the Church on Time”.
Ahmed is delightful as Eliza, who is played with a more feminist edge than is traditional. Her voice especially soared when she sang “I could have Danced All Night”, and “Show Me”. Her performance is more formidable than previous portrayals of Eliza, with a character who is more interested in having an equal seat at the table, rather than a bonding relationship with Higgins. As Higgins, Mackintosh makes for a perfectly charming and self-centered misogynist. His speak-singing links the different scenes together as he fights to keep the focus on himself rather than on Eliza.
An aspect of the show that has aged less well is the stream of hateful things that Higgins says to Eliza when she revolts against Higgins’ egotism. It’s something that is harder and harder to accept and shows how aspects of the show are deemed socially unacceptable today. Mackintosh’s charm, however, helps make believable Eliza’s decision to return at the end – though her terms are unclear.
Pariseau does an impressive job as Pickering, with the highlight being his marvelously hilarious phone call with Scotland Yard when Eliza goes missing. Leslie Alexander gives a strident performance as Higgins’ mother, and Adam Grupper as Eliza’s father is a delight. Grupper obviously relishes having some of the wittiest lines and most crowd-pleasing songs in the show. Sam Simahk also does a wonderful turn as the love-sick Freddy who is happiest when he is stalking Eliza on the street where she lives.
Music director and conductor John Bell does a sublime job of having the music take center stage from the beginning overture through the musical’s numerous classic tunes. Christopher Gattelli’s choreography shines both in the more intimate scenes with one or two characters such as “Without You” as well as the large-scale dance scenes in songs such as “Get Me to the Church On Time”.
Michael Yeargan’s composite set design is also enchanting. Made up of different sets on wheels, with cast members effortlessly pushing the set pieces on and off the stage. It was fascinating to see how quickly cast members were able to sweep in with the different sets. The revolving set piece for Higgin’s home with an intricately detailed library and front foyer with doors that the actors walk through to the next set while the set is revolving is especially notable.
With changing public perceptions of how women should be treated in entertainment, it becomes more of a challenge to mount musicals with misogynist themes without offending audiences. Despite these underlying themes in My Fair Lady, this production’s portrayal of Eliza as a women who persisted and bested her teacher gives a new vitality to this rich musical.
My Fair Lady plays at the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis through March 8, 2020.
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