Two questions hover over the production of My Fair Lady currently on tour at the National, one old, one new.
The old one has bedeviled the play since before it was My Fair Lady, from when George Bernard Shaw wrote its source, Pygmalion, based on the classical myth of a sculptor who brings his creation to life and falls in love with her, 110 years ago. How do you reconcile the story of a woman growing into independence with the genres of comedy, romance, and musicals, which almost demand that the protagonists pair off at the end?
The new one is how do you update an almost 70-year-old classic show to our era but maintain the charm that has brought some to call it the perfect Broadway musical?
Let’s deal with the second one first. This My Fair Lady has all the elements that have delighted audiences for decades, which garnered this revival 10 Tony nominations at Lincoln Center in 2018.
From the moment the audience enters the theater and sees the impressive watercolor of London’s iconic St. Paul’s dome on the scrim, we know that production values will be high. Michael Yeargan’s set, which alternates between mobile but intricately painted and illuminated flats and a slide-out, two-story, wood-paneled library, is both flexible and sumptuous. The scene changes are accomplished smoothly by the costumed characters, usually silhouetted against a color-washed cyclorama. One graceful touch involves three streetlights of different heights, which periodically pause in a line center stage before being pushed to their new positions. The library set boasts an impressive double-height arched window with a tree and playing space behind, although Donald Holder’s lighting, otherwise excellent, could better indicate what seemed to be its main purpose: to differentiate between day and night. And in one of Director Bartlett Sher’s few bewildering choices, a policeman having a tryst outside the window totally upstages the principals during the “cup of tea” scene, merely to get around the fact that there is no bird in Eliza’s birdcage for Higgins to feed cake to. Some reinterpretations cause more problems than they solve.
Music Director/Conductor David Andrews Rogers makes the 10-piece orchestra sound larger playing the lush score but does not overwhelm the singers, thanks to Marc Salzberg and Beth Lake’s sound design. Also, some numbers that can come across as shrill, such as “The Servants Chorus” (aka “Poor Professor Higgins”), have a satisfying lower register here.
Catherine Zuber’s costumes eminently deserve their 2018 Tony win. Set in 1912, right on the cusp between Art Nouveau and Art Deco, they look like Erté fashion prints come to swirling life. In the Ascot scene, which begins in breathtaking silhouette, the dresses glow softly in a muted dove-gray, differentiated only in their shapes, and there are some touches of visual humor involving hobble skirts and trains. Eliza’s outfit alone stands out with its black bodice (but would have been more effective without its froofy lace embellishment). In the ballroom scene, the silhouettes are the same, but the colors are gorgeous jewel tones, against which Eliza’s golden-apricot ensemble plays beautifully. Her masterful handling of her train in the dance sequences broadcasts her new confidence.
All of this feeds the audience’s hunger for a rich and nostalgic My Fair Lady, but Sher’s updated revival brings us squarely into the present. First of all, the casting is suitably diverse, and although the principals are all white, Eliza’s two understudies are women of color. The staging, too, hints at a new interpretation from the start. First, Suffragettes march through the ensemble in “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly,” reminding us that this is precisely the time when women were agitating for rights, freedom, and a voice.
But then the fun really begins. Both Zoltan Karparthy (Daniel James Canaday), in an utterly delightful corkscrew mustache that bounces when he talks (wig and hair Design by Tom Watson) and Colonel Pickering (John Adkinson) come across as gloriously gay. Pickering’s phone conversation with “Boozy,” his “old school chum,” has never conveyed quite this much meaning before.
And the showstopper of the night, “I’m Getting Married in the Morning,” led by the excellent Michael Hegarty as Alfred P. Doolittle, proves this is definitely not your grandparents’ My Fair Lady. The dance-hall booze-up gets wilder as Doolittle’s stag night goes on, culminating in a chorus line of cross-dressed can-can “girls” (who do impressive splits!) and a drag queen and king as bride and groom. Christopher Gattelli’s saucy choreography makes the number fly by too fast. The iconic image of Doolittle being borne off to his wedding like a flower-bedecked, dearly-departed stiff gains extra punch from pall-bearers dressed in corsets and boxer shorts.
The intersection of new and old brings us back to our second question — whether Eliza and Higgins should end up together.
In Shaw’s original conception, he was adamant that they should not. There was enough pressure even at first to have the story end “happily” that Shaw wrote a postscript essay, “‘What Happened Afterwards,” to the 1916 version of the script, and in 1920 he wrote a note to the leading actress, insisting, “When Eliza emancipates herself — when Galatea comes to life — she must not relapse. She must retain her pride and triumph to the end.”
This Eliza, Madeline Powell, only two years out of college and making her National Tour debut, shows this pride and independence well. She is determined, willful, and self-possessed from the start. On several lines where Higgins tells her to stop “boo-hooing” she does not seem to have been crying at all. She is a fiery redhead in a long line of black-and-white Elizas. Her voice has a strong lower register that she uses extensively (even sometimes unnecessarily, as when she cuts off the ends of her “loverley”s when still in her Cockney persona). When she gets to her higher notes, her soprano is unforced, but sometimes lacks power, as in the end of the devilishly difficult “Show Me.” But she is a confident Eliza from the get-go.
Which is just as well, given her Higgins. Jonathan Grunert (also making his National Tour debut) gives us a Professor who proves the evening’s only disappointment. It is hard to tell whether his wooden portrayal is a character choice or an acting flaw, but in either case, he looks and moves like a marionette, down to his rectangular mouth that opens and shuts like a nutcracker. His enunciation is too exaggerated, his emotions too repressed. Even in his triumphant scene after the ball, his expression barely changes. He has the virtue of being closer in age to Eliza than is often portrayed, and his singing voice is good. But like many Higginses trying to differentiate themselves from the iconic talk-sung portrayal by Rex Harrison, he seems determined to sing every single note in the score, even when some would be more effective if spoken. Higgins is, without a doubt, a rude, sexist, odious character, and for that very reason, he must portray some charm and vulnerability in order for there to be even a possibility, let alone a reason, for Eliza to fall in love with him. The fact that she does so with this Higgins seems rather more Stockholm Syndrome than romance.
So, do they, or don’t they? That has always been the question. I have seen one production where, when Higgins utters that infuriating, final, “Eliza, where are my slippers,” they are on the floor, and she simply points, requiring him to go down on one knee in front of her to retrieve them. That seemed like a fair compromise. But in this production, Eliza walks up to Higgins, places one hand gently on the side of his face, as if about to kiss him — in itself a bold move — and then abruptly turns, strides downstage, looks out triumphantly at the audience, and marches off into her future, whatever it may be. Higgins is left to slide backward, with the set, into irrelevance.
Now that musicals no longer require happy endings, I think this will be the definitive resolution going forward — as Shaw originally intended.
Sometimes old and new go hand in hand.
Running Time: Approximately two hours and 55 minutes with one 15-minute intermission.
My Fair Lady plays through April 9, 2023 (7:30 pm evenings and 1:30 pm matinees), at the National Theatre located at 1321 Pennsylvania Ave NW, Washington, DC. Tickets (starting at $60) are available online or by calling the box office at (202) 628-6161.
Recommended for ages 10 and up.
Cast and creative credits for the North American tour of My Fair Lady can be found here.
COVID Safety: Masks are strongly recommended but not required for all ticket holders. For full COVID protocol, go here.