By Karen Isaacs
I’m happy to report that the national tour of My Fair Lady, now at the Bushnell through Sunday, March 13, gives us an excellent reproduction of the outstanding 2018-19 Lincoln Center revival directed by Bartlett Sher. It would have been in Hartford earlier, if not for “you-know-what.”
Reviving a classic musical – and My Fair Lady is one of the best musicals ever written (if not the most perfect) – is a challenge. How we view women and their interactions with men are very different from the time period of the work (early 1900s).
Sher had the task of being true to the original musical by Lerner & Loewe as well as subtly adjusting it to make it less an anachronism for today’s audiences. After all, Shaw who wrote the original play, Pygmalion was interested in discussing how accent, language and education reflected class and economic success. But he was a strong proponent of women’s rights and equality. His female characters are often stronger than the males.
Over time, many have thought of the musical as a Cinderella story, where the poor flower seller Eliza ends up with the well-educated and well-to-do Professor Higgins even if he may not be the handsome prince.
Does anyone not know the story of the Cockney flower girl (Eliza) who comes to the famous Professor Higgins, a pheneticist, to learn how to speak proper English so she can get a job in a flower shop.
Shaw always said the play wasn’t a romance and that Higgins and Eliza did not end up together. In the original play, Eliza leaves though Higgins smugly tells his mother that she (Eliza) will do as he had requested.
It was in the later movie version (1938 starring Leslie Howard and Wendy Hiller) that the ending was altered to hint that Eliza and Higgins will be together, and in the musical, it is somewhat clearer still. In the original musical, a stage version of a freeze-frame and the swelling of music lead you to believe in the typical happy ending.
Sher allows the audience to make its own decision about the ending; those who want to believe that Eliza goes her separate way can do so, while those who suspect that they will be together can also believe in that ending. Some will think that Eliza walks away never to interact with Higgins again, others may believe that their paths will cross as a platonic friendship, and the romantics among us believe there will be a romantic ending. I put myself in the latter category.
Overall, there are fine performances from the leading characters: Laird Mackintosh as Higgins, Shereen Ahmed as Eliza, Martin Fisher as her father, and Kevin Pariseau as Higgin’s phonetic colleague, Colonel Pickering. Each handles the music – and it is extensive – well. But Ahmed gets the highest marks. Her Eliza is a strong, determined woman even as a pupil. For the other three, each has some flaws. Fisher has a strong accent that makes it hard to always understand him; and Mackintosh injects a little too much physicality into the part.
It appears as though some of the subtleties of the original revival had been lost or broadened for the tour and the large theaters it will play.
This is a large cast for a tour; smaller than the original Lincoln Center production, but still over 25 people in ensemble roles. You never feel the stage is bare.
The sets – including Prof. Higgin’s house which revolves, costumes, lighting and choreography – are faithful reproductions of the original. If some of the accents occasionally slip, you can let that pass.
Go see this production. If you love the show, you will enjoy the revival. If you have never seen it live, you owe it to yourself to see it. If you want to see what a great musical is all about, go see it.
For tickets visit Bushnell.org.