Growing up in the early 2000s, I was shockingly someone that never really liked musicals, let alone a 3-hour sung through film about the class stratification in Victorian-era England. But as a tween, films like “Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen” and “She’s All That” were instant movie theater staples, both stories of awkward teens becoming high school royalty from a man’s influence. These films, based on the story “Pygmalion” about the lower class flower seller Eliza Doolittle being transformed into an eloquent upper class lady. With the ubiquity of the “Pygmalion” story, the musical by Frederick Lerner and Alan Jay Lowe, “My Fair Lady” hearkens back to the classic source material. The classic musical “My Fair Lady” directed by Bartlett Sher runs now at the Arsht Center from now until April 9 with tickets available here.
With a scrim featuring a watercolor Victorian street and a singular lamp pole setting the stage, the show opens to a busy Covent Garden street where the classes of England mingle from the destitute to the ultra wealthy. Amongst them are the Eynsford-Hills summoning a taxi and a myriad of flower girls selling their wares. As phonetician Professor Henry Higgins (Jonathan Grunert) is mistaken for an undercover police officer as he observes the affectations of the Cockney dialect, he catches the ire of Eliza Doolittle (Madeline Powell) who rebukes his attention with a banshee’s nasal screech. Goaded by fellow linguistic enthusiast, Colonel Pickering (John Adkison), Higgins wagers that he can transform the lowly girl into a proper woman in only six months time. As a major Broadway star vehicle for its original leads Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews, it is inescapable how much each actor developed the roles from initial tryouts all the way to the Great White Way. As Higgins, Jonathan Grunert captures all of the calculated flamboyance of Harrison’s crisp diction in a loquacious talk-sing baritone with a bone-cutting wit executed expertly. His foil, the titular fair lady Eliza is performed by Madeline Powell with all of the nasal “ehs” and “ahs” of the guttersnipe flower girl before transformed into the eloquent, refined woman in the image Higgins ascribes her to be. In Powell’s “Wouldn’t it be Loverly,” she balances the exaggerated syllables of the kerbstone English with a crystalline clear mezzo-soprano mixed chest/head voice that alludes to the prim and proper lady beneath her demeanor. Backed by a trio of her fellow ne-er-do-wells (William Warren Carver, Richard Coleman and Mark Mitrano), the classic show tune illuminates the lower class pining for “loverly” standards of life, that a good majority of theatre-going audiences can recognize as “adequate.”
With the show’s younger leads, this production has to be noted for not only featuring racial diversity on stage but age diversity in the ensemble cast. Mrs. Pearce (Madeline Brennan) is the main keeper of the Higgins household, sporting a Scottish brogue, gradually frustrated by the hours she and the fellow maids have to attend as the days of Eliza’s lessons go on. Reaching the peak as her diction lesson on “The Rain in Spain” reaches a fever pitch, Eliza managing to grasp the language is a vital turning point in her metamorphosis. Eliza’s father, Alfred P. Doolittle (Michael Hegarty) is introduced being tossed out of a pub in the morning with all the other drunken slobs who can’t summon a sixpence to pay off their bar tab. While he proclaims that “With A Little Bit of Luck” he can always find a way to have his debts paid, Higgins recognizes the philosophical nature of the yarns Alfred spins and recommends him to an American millionaire to provide insight. While Eliza’s transformation is at the core of the show, Alfred becoming subject to “middle-class morality” leads to Eliza’s step-mother finally wanting to marry him with the show-stopping Act 2 number “Get Me to the Church on Time.” With a flurry of can-can girls (and boys), the music hall style song is a delightful dance-heavy romp that is an undeniable highlight of the show. Socialite Freddy Eynsford-Hill (Nathan Halliwanger) courts Eliza with absolute giddy thrill that his solo number is ecstatic just to be “On The Street Where You Live” singing gaily outside Eliza’s home. While Freddy’s infatuation with Eliza is quite believable and bafflingly rebuffed, the re-worked second act of “My Fair Lady” just leaves one in disbelief that Eliza has any interest in the petulant manchild like Higgins.
With a more minimalist approach to the overall production, director Bartlett Sher brought on his regular collaborators set designer Michael Yeargan with costume designer Catherine Zuber, whom he previously worked on with award-winning revivals of “The King and I” and “Fiddler on the Roof.” Sher had a tall order in 2018, revisiting a show that had been revived already in five different Broadway productions. Bringing the show to the Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater, the director sought to retain the vintage grandeur in the source material yet bring some sensibilities to the modern era. Even the ending’s shift is meant to reflect the story of Eliza rather than the well-tread material of a woman falling for a man that berates her at every waking moment. Even through the costume design, Eliza is given her signature dirt-ridden face with dowdy blue frock, transforming into an elegant jewel-toned gown, to her ultramarine dress reflecting a signature color palette going full circle. Feather-adorned opulent hats and ruffled period attire are abound between tailored striped suits and military garb, that have a level of modernity but are entirely respective of the era the show is set in. However, while the performances and costuming are praiseworthy, the updated scenic design and music arrangements seem to have taken a scaled-down COVID reduction. Michael Yeargan’s brilliant carousel design that rotates between settings of the show here is replaced for various scrims and flat photography inspired set pieces wheeled on and off-stage by cast members. While Henry Higgins’ study is the main location for the entirety of even the original film, it seems to be the only truly fleshed out and detailed set of the whole show. The lack of any other really developed sets makes every other scene’s white backdrop with various lamp posts and trees scattered about feel like an afterthought taking place in some surreal environment. With a nearly 30-piece orchestra on stage at the Vivian Beaumont, the tour’s musical ensemble featured barely half of the musicians and sadly relegated the show’s extremely string heavy sound to digital keyboards, making the exaggerated dynamics lack warmth and humanity to the classic score.
Bartlett Sher’s rendition of “My Fair Lady” isn’t quite your mother’s “My Fair Lady” but it’s definitely not, say, Daniel Fish’s version either. Sher treads extremely carefully to retain a good amount of the charm of the original source material and inevitably it is a wonderful evening at the theater. What makes this rendition of “My Fair Lady” quite “loverly” is its cast, who despite not being big name stars yet have an undeniable star power that is absolutely superior casting. The iconic songs of Lerner and Lowe are given a brand new life on the stage with every performer putting 1000% into each affected syllable and operatic aria. “My Fair Lady” directed runs now at the Arsht Center from now until April 9 with tickets available here.