From that other Broadway:
My Fair Lady: The Perfect Musical Reboot at TPAC
In 1913, when George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion was first premiered in Europe, the world was in turmoil. World War One was approaching and the labor movement in the United States and Europe was well underway, with the Colorado Coalfield War, considered to be the deadliest labor unrest in American History beginning in September of that year. In England, at the Epsom Derby, suffragette Emily Davison died as she tried to grab the reins of King George V’s horse. The world at the time proved quite dramatic and it is no wonder that in their entertainment they sought escapist literature. Perhaps this is why Shaw’s “rags to riches through phonetics” narrative became so popular. It is a
quaint story and when it was adapted for the Broadway stage by Lerner and Loewe in 1956, as My Fair Lady, it had the luck of an amazing cast staring Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews, getting the longest run of any show on Broadway up until that time and it has been called the “perfect musical.”
The early February production at Andrew Jackson Hall in TPAC certainly demonstrates the work’s “perfect musical” status. With Michael Yeargan’s sumptuous sets, Professor Higgin’s house features the best of a Victorian bourgeoisie décor, and excellent period costumes by Catherine Zuber, at the very first glance the musical is breathtaking.
As the ragamuffin-cum-duchess, it would be difficult to overestimate Shereen Ahmed as Eliza Doolittle, the title character. A fetching brunette with a voice that is more than reminiscent of Andrews, her character’s creator, Ahmed dominates the role. Her performance of the big number, “I Could Have Danced All Night” was wonderful, not just because of her excellent intonation and timbre at forte, but the piano, a soft, intimate delivery that gave chills. Further, her diction, and her part is a transcendental etude in diction, is at turns funny, amazing, and always believable, particularly in the “Ascot Gavotte” where she mimics character after character while maintaining a naiveté balanced by street smarts. Her character is incredibly complicated and she depicts it in a magnificent way.
Her male counterpart, Laird Mackintosh as Professor Henry Higgins, is self-centered, educated and confident, but with remarkable flashes of vulnerability that enrich his character. Also, Mackintosh’s delivery of what may be the worst line Shaw ever wrote: “I know you’re tired, I know your headaches, I know your nerves are as raw as meat in a butcher’s window” is a believable articulation of his character’s difficulty with being appropriate himself. The two of them together have a great energy and tension; Ahmed’s natural charisma, just as one assumes Andrews had quite a bit of charisma over Harrison, allows you to clearly see how the plot is going to develop and yet enjoy every step along the way.
Christopher Gattelli’s choreography to Lerner and Lowe’s orchestration is magical and ridiculous, the highlight of which is “Get Me to the Church on Time,” sung by Eliza’s fun-loving father Alfred Doolittle (played by a hilarious Adam Gupper) in an ensemble piece that alone makes this reboot remarkable. Professor Higgins’s mother, Mrs. Higgin’s, is a wise, worldly and pragmatically feminist woman endearing performed by Leslie Alexander. Professor Higgin’s sidekick Colonel Pickering, as played by Kevin Parseau, is also remarkably endearing, entering into the pantheon of mildly homoerotic sidekicks (think Batman and Robin, the Lone Ranger and Tonto or Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson.). In “Why Can’t a Woman Be More Like a Man,” he is wholly supportive of the Professor, but in the silly trio “The Rain in Spain” his presence supports the tension between the Professor and Eliza.
As a testament to its success, and despite rather significant cuts from the original, the evening I saw this production I forgot for a couple of hours that our President was being impeached, the caucus results in Iowa were in a questionable flux, and the corona virus was spreading rapidly around the world. This is to say it is a delightfully successful production and every bit escapist as it should be.