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Monday, October 11, 2021

F3Stage Review: My Fair Lady is still classy and classic... and now modern and relevant

Film Flam Flummox

It seems almost ridiculous to think a beloved old musical chestnut of stage and screen such as My Fair Lady could ever be considered "controversial" or even "divisive," but that actually happened within the community of theater aficionados when Bartlett Sher's revival production opened at Lincoln Center in New York in 2018. While enjoying a successful run of about 15 months, during that time it remained a subject of debate due not to any deletions or alterations to the familiar text and music but... an adjustment in stage direction. While such a subtle move does indeed make an inversely dramatic impact at the final curtain, one thing about this production, whose national tour is now playing in Hollywood at the Dolby Theatre, that cannot be disputed is that it is a fittingly classy staging that more than respects the deservedly enduring original work of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe. It's just that Sher's production now also honors the social reality of it being a work from the 1950s being mounted in the 2020s, and in a way that feels completely appropriate with the ideas and issues already addressed by the creators in the first place.

And those issues, as relevant as they are now as they were back then, are that of class and gender roles. The genius, of course, of Lerner and Loewe's adaptation of George Bernard Shaw's straight play Pygmalion is that the weightier concerns are seamlessly packaged in such an appealingly accessible and downright fun package. This is no better exemplified by the delightful performance of stage superstar-to-be Shereen Ahmed as the eventual "fair lady" of the title, young Cockney flower saleswoman Eliza Doolittle. She is a game comedienne as the rough-around-the-edges, Eliza is taken in by snooty professor Henry Higgins (Laird Mackintosh), who sets out to transform her into a refined, well spoken "lady" in a bet with colleague Colonel Pickering (Kevin Pariseau). Not only is she golden in physical gags or barbed, culture clash banter with Mackintosh, she consistently maintains Eliza's harsh accent in the early songs without sacrificing the timeless beauty of Loewe's melodies, for which her glorious soprano was made to sing.

The effortless charm with which Ahmed instantly wins over the viewer is key following the outcome of Higgins's "experiment" and the very real fallout from all the comic shenanigans. While Sher's production remains consistently fun throughout both its acts, it more clearly foregrounds Eliza's conflicting emotions following the show's centerpiece ball scene. Case in point, the celebratory "You Did It" number, in which the spirited singing of Higgins, Pickering, and others is strikingly contrasted with, Eliza's eloquently wordless actions and expressions, which speak just as loudly as the song. More than just a quiet way for setting the stage for what has always been the driving question for the remainder of act two, that of what Eliza's "refinement" and resulting new prospects mean for her future, it also underscores Sher's emphatic, and rather relevant to the current social climate, perspective and power shift to Eliza and Eliza alone. Yes, the effect going forward on the relationship/situationship with her mentor (or, perhaps more accurately, abuser, given the condescension, manipulation, and exploitation that sparked the link in the first place?) Higgins is part of the question, and still a major one at that. But here it's not so much a formulaic, love-hate "will they or won't they?" romantic issue that places them on equal ground rather than one that more plausibly reflects the post-"transformation" reversion of their dynamic. It's now all about Eliza's matured feelings and expanded world view and how/if Higgins can comfortably fit there for her, not about being overly mindful and concerned with his feelings out of blind loyalty--or, to step back and into a general artistic standpoint, out of shameless, easy crowd pleasing and pandering. From this comes that bold adjustment to the stage direction, which, given the modern thematic lens of Sher's creative vision, is completely organic, earned, and, quite frankly, inevitable.

Even more undeniable, though, even from anyone who has any doubts about Sher's more radical touches, is what a lush and often gorgeous production this is. Michael Yeargan's sets, in particular the rather spectacular revolving one for Higgins's house, are visually striking while being practical to keep the action and story going; ditto Catherine Zuber's costumes, with Eliza's ball gown being a particularly "loverly" highlight. Ahmed's voice may rise above all, but everyone else in the ensemble is in vocally fine form (as Eliza's hopelessly besotted suitor Freddy, Sam Simahk is especially impressive) and have great stage rapports with their castmates. Christopher Gattelli's choreography is perhaps one area where the envelope is nudged maybe slightly too far, namely in Eliza's father Alfred's (Adam Grupper) second act showstopper "Get Me to the Church on Time." Gender roles may be pertinent in this piece, but an extended drag bit in this number feels like needless overkill in a production that is largely defined by its finesse.

Such finesse is quite fitting for as sturdy an entertainment as My Fair Lady, which 65 years after its Broadway debut still makes for a wildly enjoyable night at the theater that delivers in music, laughs, and emotion. That, at its very end, Sher also leaves his audience with food for thought is just the proverbial cherry on top.

The Lincoln Center Theater production of My Fair Lady is now playing at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood through Sunday, October 31; the national tour then moves on to other cities across North America through 2022, including a return to Southern California at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa from Tuesday, January 11 through Sunday, January 23.

(Special thanks to Broadway in Hollywood)

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