My Fair Lady

Music by Frederick Loewe; book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner; based on Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw
Lincoln Center Theater
Bristol Hippodrome

Charlotte Kennedy as Eliza Doolittle, Michael D Xavier as Henry Higgins and John Middleton as Colonel Pickering in My Fair Lady
Charlotte Kennedy as Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady
Adam Woodyatt as Alfred P Doolittle in My Fair Lady

Pygmalion will celebrate its 110th anniversary later this year since it debuted at the Hofburg Theatre in Vienna. It was never plain sailing for playwright George Bernard Shaw—the first English language production two years later lasted just 114 performances. The Irishman was said to be “appalled” by the shallow audiences, and his difficult relationship with Herbert Beerbohm Tree, the famed actor who brought Shakespeare to the West End, hit boiling point when Shaw returned to the 100th show only to witness the ending altered.

Whether Shaw would be satisfied with the notable adaptations we’ve received of the play since, we’ll never know, as he died in 1950. The Broadway musical production took off just a half a dozen years later and shot Julie Andrews to stardom—but not enough for the original Eliza Doolittle to keep her role when Audrey Hepburn starred in the film. More than half a century later since it debuted in New York, its ending and depiction of class and misogyny is still debated. Something the controversial Shaw would have no doubt relished.

My Fair Lady sees Covent Garden flower girl Eliza Doolittle attempt to become a ‘lady’ with help from phonetician, and self-described gentleman, Henry Higgins. The current iteration of My Fair Lady is Bartlett Sher’s production from 2018 which premièred at the London Coliseum only last year. Produced by English National Opera, the brilliantly large cast and company includes a 16-strong orchestra—down from the 36 which performed on the West End. Nevertheless, every note of Frederick Loewe’s divine score fills a large venue like the Bristol Hippodrome to aplomb.

And it is exactly that in which My Fair Lady, despite its flaws and outdatedness, excels. The sheer scale of production offers wonderfully designed sets which captivates an audience with its luscious use of light (designed by Donald Holder) and intrinsic builds that provide scope and extra dimensional qualities (Michael Yeargen). The breathtaking costumes (Catherine Zuber), especially at Ascot, and sizzling choreography (Christopher Gattelli) amplify the cast to an upper echelon of musical theatre. With ticket prices a constant debate amongst theatregoers, it is hard to agree with anybody who felt short-changed leaving the Hippodrome.

The calibre of production aside, the cast itself deserves its fair share of praise with Charlotte Kennedy’s Doolittle oozing quality and charm. In a role that some of theatre’s heavyweight have portrayed, there’s not a trace of weighted shoulders on Kennedy. The dialectal changes in both dialogue and singing might appear an obvious challenge but the subtleties are cleverly performed—not to forget her stunning vocals, especially in "I Could Have Danced All Night" and "Without You". Michael D Xavier as the pompous, naïve and mostly arrogant Higgins is right on point comically but somehow still manages to surge enough dislike from the audience.

My Fair Lady certainly packs a punch and manages to still hold its own despite the shifts in society since it first premièred. The energy in the ensemble numbers, especially in Adam Woodyatt’s (Eastenders) Alfred P Doolittle’s rendition of "Get Me To The Church On Time", is contagious. It is a classic for a reason—and Alan Jay Lerner and Loewe’s musical is still a must-watch when it drops by town.

Reviewer: Jacob Newbury

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