Kevin Pariseau as Colonel Pickering, Laird Mackintosh as Professor Henry Higgins and Shereen Ahmed as Eliza Doolittle in The Lincoln Center Theater Production of Lerner & Loewe’s MY FAIR LADY
My Fair Lady is a story that has been told in countless ways. It began its long life as George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion, which was then adapted into a British film. Later, the two were combined into the beloved 1956 musical. The Durham Performing Arts Center (DPAC) version, onstage through May 8, has its own mixed origins. It’s Lincoln Center Theater’s production of Alan Jay Lerner (book and lyrics) and Frederick Loewe’s (music) work. And, all things considered, it’s the best possible version for modern audiences.
The story opens, as it always does, on the bustling streets of Edwardian London, brought to beautiful life by Michael Yeargan’s set design. There, the indomitable Eliza Doolittle, portrayed at the opening night performance by Nicole Ferguson, is selling flowers and speaking in Cockney. But, unbeknownst to her, her life is about to change.
She attracts the attention of professor Henry Higgins (Laird Mackintosh), a linguist who is appalled by her lack of what he deems “proper” speech. Later, when she seeks elocution lessons from him, she finds herself the source of an ugly bet between Higgins and his friend and fellow linguist, Colonel Pickering (Kevin Pariseau). Higgins’ goal is to make Eliza passable as a “real lady.”
Of course, modern viewers can see the problems right from the start. But, to be fair to the original, Higgins is not intended to be likable, and this production never pretends that he is. In fact, Mackintosh unabashedly portrays Higgins as the misogynistic snob he is, one who is utterly undeserving of any affection or loyalty from Eliza. Similarly, Bartlett Sher’s direction emphasizes the classism and sexism that run rampant in the script and never once make excuses for them.
Still, it’s hard to listen to songs like “A Hymn to Him” without bristling, and Higgins’ horrid treatment of Eliza is difficult to digest. However, it is Eliza’s characterization that makes the familiar story enjoyable. Ferguson plays Eliza as tough, wise, and charming. It also doesn’t hurt that she has a killer voice and can effortlessly slip between accents. Pariseau’s kindhearted portrayal of Pickering also helps lighten the mood, and Sam Simahk is perfect as Freddy Eynsford-Hill, the young man who has become besotted with Eliza. His delivery of “On the Street Where You Live” is one of the show’s most delightful moments.
Also, Eliza’s costumes, designed by Catherine Zuber, are to die for. Everything from her simple green dress to her sparkling gown evoke a different era. Zuber also makes use of big hats and other bold fashions, adding a lovely visual element. And, speaking of aesthetics, Yeargan’s revolving set is incredible. Higgins’ study is all polished wood and pristine views, and, as the set turns, viewers are treated to glimpses of other parts of the home, including the impressive exterior. Like the set, the musical numbers are larger than life and well-complemented by Christopher Gattelli’s jolly choreography.
Producing a classic musical for the modern age is no easy feat. Yet, this production manages to pull it off and make it palatable. Sher’s risk-taking ending is commendable and allows contemporary viewers to walk away feeling enlightened, instead of sad. Indeed, it turns Eliza into the hero Shaw intended her to be, the hero she’s been all along.
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