My Fair Lady
Book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner and music by Frederick Loewe from a play by George Bernard Shaw
Lincoln Center Theater, James L Nederlander, Jamie Wilson, Hunter Arnold, Crossroads Live, Playful Productions and English National Opera
Palace Theatre, Manchester
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Lerner and Loewe's My Fair Lady is so well-known and loved, most people can sing chunks of the score from memory. Which makes it a bit embarrassing to admit I’ve never seen it on stage before tonight, but then it has been over a decade since there was a major revival.
The plot of the musical—involving one man essentially selling his daughter and another shaping her into a perceived ideal image of a woman—may not be in accord with contemporary viewpoints. While director Bartlett Sher gently removes some of the more unpleasant characteristics from Henry Higgins, this is a production which does not hide the harsh social inequalities behind the fairy-tale story. George Bernard Shaw, whose play Pygmalion provides the basis for the musical, would approve.
The approach is apparent from the opening in which downtrodden flower-seller Eliza Doolittle (Charlotte Kennedy) plies her trade to the elite leaving the opera while timidly avoiding any unwanted attention from the local police who, she is all too aware, are prejudiced against her social class. Eliza’s harsh accent attracts the attention of phoneticist Professor Henry Higgins (Michael D Xavier) who, on a whim, bets Colonel Pickering (John Middleton) he can train her to speak like, and pass as, a member of the elite. Naturally, this has unexpected consequences.
Michael D Xavier tones down the misogynism and chauvinism in Higgins, playing the character more as an eccentric scientist. Like Basil Fawlty, he is prone to comical physical expressions of exasperation whenever the world does not accord with his approach to life. For once,, the consequences of the gamble are apparent for the characters. Even if triumphant, Eliza risks a lonely existence as an outcast belonging to neither social class while Higgins is forced to acknowledge his barren, loveless lifestyle.
Adam Woodyatt, on the other hand, plays Eliza’s father Alfred P Doolittle with unrestrained, lip-smacking relish. The character, who pimps out his daughter for beer money and recommends the best way of getting her attention is by physical chastisement, is beyond redemption so Woodyatt pushes the role to extremes. Director Sher does not stint on spectacle, so Woodyatt’s lascivious performance of "Get Me to the Church on Time" features a backing line of can-can dancers whose membership eventually extends to include transvestites.
In a star-making performance, Charlotte Kennedy shows the full impact of the social transformation upon Eliza. In the initial scenes, Kennedy carries herself with a subtle diffidence, trying to conceal her sense of inadequacy behind an aggressive exterior. Her gradual growth in confidence is heart-warming to watch and leads to a deeply moving scene of Eliza returning to her roots to find she is not recognised by her former friends who regard her as a member of the elite. Kennedy’s performance is so appealing, the audience is automatically on her side, delighting not only in Eliza’s successes but her willingness to challenge her teacher and the expectations of society.
The cast are not overawed by singing some of the most famous songs in musical theatre. "Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?" begins, teasingly, in the style of a barbershop quartet.
This is a lush production. Michael Yeargan’s stage set is a thing of wonder. The set of Professor Higgins’s study revolves so that, as characters move from room to room, the audience goes with them. As director Sher constantly populates the background to the main action with vivid secondary characters, the effect is that of a bustling, lively household.
The eye-popping costumes by Catherine Zuber come close to stealing the show. The scene at Ascot is hilarious because the characters are not only dressed as perfectly as shop manikins, they are almost as immobile and expressionless, singing robotically about their exciting lifestyle. It is a marked contrast to the pleasure taken by Eliza in her achievements or Higgins in the exercise of his craft.
The romantic yet realistic approach taken by Lincoln Center Theater in My Fair Lady will delight fans of both musicals and Shaw’s original play.
Reviewer: David Cunningham