A ‘My Fair Lady’ for today at the Kennedy Center

The character arc that carries Lerner and Loewe’s classic My Fair Lady belongs to Eliza Doolittle, as she rises from flower girl at Covent Garden to the belle of the embassy ball, from feral street creature to self-possessed autonomy. With fierce intelligence and an unquenchable passion for learning, she takes charge of her own life.

Kevin Pariseauas as Colonel Pickering, Laird Mackintoshas as Professor Henry Higgins and Shereen Ahmedas as Eliza Doolittle in ‘My Fair Lady.’ Photo by Joan Marcus.

Shaw’s use of Pygmalion as the title of the play on which My Fair Lady is based suggests, as Henry Higgins believes, that a man is sculpting a woman into what he wants to see. That isn’t what happens in Director Bartlett Sher’s updated My Fair Lady, which originated at the Lincoln Center Theater and is now enjoying a national tour stop at the Kennedy Center. Shereen Ahmed, as Eliza, ultimately uses the tools Higgins gives her to make herself.

Ahmed sings the role beautifully, whether in the plaintively ambitious “Wouldn’t it Be Loverly,” the angry “Just You Wait,” the joyously exhilarated “I Could Have Danced All Night,” or the defiant “Without You.” Ahmed makes every song an expression of her character, in sometimes delightfully subtle ways. In the lines leading to “The Rain in Spain,” she sounds out the words right for the first time, slowly and carefully, realizing as she says them that she has made a breakthrough. At the beginning of “Without You,” she quietly thinks out loud about her situation in her first two lines before launching into her declaration of independence.

The best Higgins I’ve ever seen was by the wonderful Richard Bauer in Arena Stage’s 1991 production of Pygmalion. His Higgins was rather an innocent child, so in love with the ideas in his head that he genuinely didn’t realize that other people really existed, unable to understand why he is constantly hurting and offending them. That production was also remarkable for the relationship between him and his mother, played by the great musical theater actor Tammy Grimes. Unlike the Mrs. Higgins in most productions of either show (Leslie Alexander here), Grimes played her not simply as a disapproving grande dame but as totally adoring her brilliant son, while realistic about his flaws. The mother-son relationship made it easier to understand who Higgins has become.

Laird McIntosh takes the role in a quite different direction. Fortunately younger than the Rex Harrison tradition in the role, less cool and distant, his Higgins is a whirlwind of energy, relentlessly “on,” enacting for Eliza and everyone else the performance of his genius and superiority. McIntosh, an accomplished singing actor, is able to sing many of his songs, rather than simply talk in rhythm, with particular effectiveness in “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face.” He doesn’t have a real character arc, breaking out of his performative persona occasionally with a moment of insight (for example, the moment of panic preceding “A Hymn to Him”) but quickly slipping back into his usual ways.

Eliza’s father, Alfie Doolittle (Adam Grupper), a proud member of the “undeserving poor,” is the other character with a discernible arc, though whether it is upward to prosperity to downward to middle-class morality is a point he would likely want to argue. He shows his song-and-dance chops to great effect in “A Little Bit of Luck” and “Get Me to the Church on Time,” the latter being the occasion for a colorful and extended production number, featuring dancing hall girls and a drag wedding couple.

Shereen Ahmedas as Eliza Doolittle. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Sam Simahk is in fine tenor form as Freddy, Eliza’s hopelessly smitten, empty-headed, suitor, in “On the Street Where You Live.” As Higgins’ sidekick Col. Pickering, Kevin Pariseau is the very picture of a public school “old boy.” Generally a kindly sort, he manages to be as oblivious as Higgins to Eliza in “You Did It.”

The large ensemble sings and dances with polished perfection, and music director John Bell’s 14-piece orchestra provides a full sound and lively tempi for their accompaniment. The Ascot scene, one of the great visually comic scenes of Broadway musicals, is flawless.

Bartlett Sher’s direction provides smooth, seamless scene changes (the transition from the embassy ball to the “You Did It” scene is a nice example) as well as including some lovely details, like marching suffragettes in a first act crowd scene or a Bobby flirting with a serving girl outside the window of Higgins’ study. In “You Did It,” Sher sets up very specific points to underline the men’s dismissiveness toward Eliza, as when Higgins snatches a drink that Eliza has been given from her hand.

Michael Yeargan’s sets feature pastel drops suggestive of the backgrounds of Whistler’s London pictures (the set for the embassy ball even includes peacocks), with three, sometimes four, gray false prosceniums framing the stage like mats inside a picture frame. There’s a large-scale flown-in Covent Garden, a variety of building fronts wheeled in by actors, and, most important, an imposing, turntable-based set piece for Higgins’ house. As actors sing, the piece rotates, allowing the actors to move through different rooms in the house, giving greater three-dimensional depth to the domestic scenes.

Catherine Zuber’s varied and colorful costumes show what a fine designer can do with significant resources. Elegant light silver and blue hues are perfect for the Ascot scene. Eliza’s gown for the ball is gorgeous, but her simple pink outfit after she leaves Higgins’ house in the second act is even more effective, contrasting with the shabby browns of her former friends at Covent Garden, emphasizing that she can’t go home again.

What has made My Fair Lady, despite its many delights, a “problem play” is figuring out the basis of the relationship between the two leads, a strong tie persisting despite Higgins’ constant emotional abuse. The production gives us hints. He is the smartest person she has ever met, someone whose drive equals her own. She revels in the new power his teaching is giving her. And there is an undoubted erotic subtext. At the first instant she finds herself in his arms during “The Rain in Spain,” there’s a brief look between them (extending it very slightly would have made the point better) where both feel something that, both being erotically naïve and inexperienced, they don’t recognize. Eliza, despite her class status and lack of education, is the smartest person he has ever met, and her ability to learn dazzles him. The force of his denial of the feelings she arouses in him testifies to the strength of those unacknowledged feelings.

Shaw was adamant that Eliza and Higgins could never have a conventional romantic relationship, insisting in a 1916 commentary on Pygmalion that she would marry Freddy. Alan Jay Lerner disagreed, and, like the 1938 film of Pygmalion, My Fair Lady adds a final scene, not in the Shaw play, in which Eliza returns to Higgins’ house, at least suggesting that could be some sort of future for the pair. Without changing any lines, the Lincoln Center production now on tour here provides a conclusion that would have been more satisfying to Shaw. It doesn’t, though, answer the nagging question of why, having recently insisted that she can do without him, she comes back at all.

Pygmalion’s satire is principally centered on the British class system; My Fair Lady’s emphasis is more on relations between men and women. That focus in My Fair Lady creates at least the possibility of some transformation in the Eliza-Higgins relationship. But could it be played credibly? To do so, Higgins would have to show greater uncertainty and vulnerability earlier in the second act, no easy task for the actor and director in view of Higgins’ lines. Then imagine Higgins on his sofa in the final scene, listening to the recordings of Eliza’s voice. Eliza enters. Higgins asks for his slippers. Eliza points to them, preset equidistant from them both. He’s learned something, so he moves to them with Eliza. I’ve never heard of it being done that way, but it would be interesting to try.

Running Time: Three hours, including one intermission.

My Fair Lady plays at the Opera House at the Kennedy Center through January 19, 2020. For tickets, call (888) 641-6510 or go online.

For future dates and locations of the My Fair Lady national tour, click here.


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