A grand and lavish “My Fair Lady” is at the Kennedy Center through Jan. 19, and this touring production of Director Bartlett Sher’s recent Broadway musical will beguile you with its excellent singing and acting.
Based on George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion,” with book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner and music by Frederick Loewe, the story is about Eliza Doolittle, a Cockney flower girl with a thick, unintelligible accent. When she encounters arrogant linguistics professor Henry Higgins in Covenant Gardens, Higgins laments what he considers her vulgar speech. When Higgins meets another linguist, Colonel Pickering, Higgins bets that he can turn Eliza into a proper English speaking lady within a matter of months.
Declaring that he will be able to pass off “gutter snipe” Eliza as a duchess to high society, Higgins is the epitome of high-handedness in this musical about transformation, gender, politics and class. At its foundation, as well, is the subjugation of women. “My Fair Lady,” has numerous references to emotional abuse and the threats of physical harm by Higgins. For instance, how many times does Higgins threaten to wallop Eliza, or have his housekeeper beat her if she does not pronounce her vowels properly?
If you can get past this low-point in the musical (as well as the fourth scene in act 2 with its senseless simulation of lewd sex acts), the fabulous singing, acting and staging should keep you enthralled. For this production, soprano Shereen Ahmed plays Eliza in a role played memorably in the past by dynamos Julie Andrews and Audrey Hepburn. The actress understudied the character of Eliza on Broadway, and that gives her an advantage in this production, playing Eliza with an endearing and fierce strength.
Playing the part of Higgins is Laird Mackintosh, who has to fill the shoes that Rex Harrison played in the movie. To his credit, Mackintosh brings a delightful vibrancy to the role and is wonderfully credible as a chauvinist who sees Eliza only as an experiment. He has no clue regarding his misogynistic behavior, which sets up the surprising and ambiguous end that Sher throws in at the musical’s closing scene.
Along with being excellent actors, Ahmed and Mackintosh are terrific singers who confidently step up to the plate and knock the ball out of the park, particularly when singing the tunes that audiences have grown to love. These include “Why Can’t the English?,” “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly,” “I Could Have Danced All Night” and “The Rain In Spain.” On the latter, when Eliza finally grasps the ability to pronounce the vowel sounds properly, Ahmed is so genuinely convincing that it is one of the highlights of the show.
Other standouts in the production include Kevin Pariseau as Colonel Pickering, who can see Eliza’s inner refinement and Gayton Scott as Mrs. Pearce, Higgins’ housekeeper, who sees Eliza as a person, as well. Leslie Alexander plays Higgin’s aristocratic mother, who also comes to care for Eliza, delighted by her independence. Sam Simahk plays Freddy Eynsford-Hill, who falls for Eliza, and whose rendering of “On the Street Where You Live” was a big hit with the audience.
Another cast standout is Adam Grupper, who plays Alfred P. Doolittle, Eliza’s scheming, greedy father, and is hilarious in the role. His rendering of “With a Little Bit of Luck” in scene 4 is another highlight in the show as he plots to get money from Higgins for taking in Eliza, a daughter he has never even supported himself.
Additionally, others deserving mention include Michael Yeargan, whose elegant sets beautifully depict Edwardian era London. Catherine Zuber’s costumes are gorgeous, and sound designer Marc Salzberg allowed for all of the show’s lyrics to be heard.
A terrific orchestra under the direction of John Bell also makes this production worth checking out.
For tickets, visit kennedy-center.org.