MY FAIR LADYBook and Lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner, Music by Frederick Loewe
Adapted from George Bernard Shaw's play Pygmalion
Directed by Bartlett Sher
Choreographer – Christopher Gattelli
Scenic Designer – Michael Yeargan
Costume Designer – Catherine Zuber
Lighting Designer – Donald Holder
Sound Designer – Marc Salzberg and Beth Lake
Original Musical Arrangements – Robert Russell Bennett and Phil Lang
Dance Arrangements – Trude Rittmann
New Orchestrations – Josh Clayton and Larry Blank
Music Direction – David Andrews Rogers
Music Coordination – Talitha Fehr
Casting Binding – Binding Casting, Chad Eric Murmane, CSA
Hair & Wig Design – Tom Watson
Associate Set Designer – Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams
Associate Costume Design – Patrick Bevilacqua
Executive Producer - Kori Prior
General Manager - Andrew Terlizi
Production Manager - Gregg Damanti
Production Stage Manager – Rebecca Radziejeski
Company Manager - Soldanera Rivera
Associate Director - Samantha Saltzman
Associate Choreographer – Jim Cooney
Eliza Doolittle – Madeline Powell
Freddy Eynsford-Hill – Cameron Loyal
Ms. Clara Eynsford-Hill - Torin Ae
Colonel Pickering – John Adkison
Selsey Man – Daniel James Canaday
Professor Henry Higgins – Jonathan Grunert
Hoxton Man – Richard Coleman
The “Loverly” Quartet – William Warren Carver, Richard Coleman, Mark Mitrano
Frank, The Bartender – Andrew Fehrenbacher
Harry – Kevin D. O’Neil
Jamie – Richard Coleman
Alfred P. Doolittle – Michael Hegarty
Flower Girl – Ashley Agrusa
Mrs. Pearce – Madeline Brennan
Mrs. Hopkins – Maeghin Muller
Higgins’ Butlers – Mark Mitrano, Jesse McFarland
Higgins’ Maids – Anna Backer, Allyson Gishi, Maeghin Muller
Mrs. Higgins – Becky Saunders
Charles – Sam Griffin
Stewards – William Warren Carver, Cullen J. Zeno
Lord Boxington – Jesse McFarland
Lady Boxington – Sami Murphy
Professor Zoltan Karpathy – Daniel James Canaday
Footmen – William Warren Carver, Jesse McFarland
Queen of Transylvania – Diana Craig
Mrs. Higgins’ Servants – Timothy Scott Brausch
Ensemble: Ashley Agrusa, Anna Backer, Blair Beasley, Nick Berke, Timothy Scott Brausch, Daniel James Canaday, William Warren Carver, Richard Coleman, Diana Craig, Andrew Fehrenbacher, Allyson Gishi, Sam Griffin, Zoey Lytle, Jesse McFarland, Mark Mitrano, Maeghin Mueller, Sami Murphy, Tarin Ae, Kevin D. O’Neil, Cullen J. Zeno
Reviewed Performance: 11/2/2022
Reviewed by Ann Saucer, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
The Greek mythology character of Pygmalion is most familiar from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Bernard Shaw’s play of the same name premiered in 1913 and was adapted into the 1938 film. The musical My Fair Lady premiered in 1956, with the film released eight years later.
Notwithstanding this rich history, most audiences will be surprised by what the play My Fair Lady is actually about. We know some of these songs and lyrics (and if you don’t please correct that by seeing this production immediately). “I could have danced all night” is about a romance, and “I’m getting married in the morning; get me to the church on time,” is sung by someone who wants to get married, yes? No and no. Eliza Doolittle wants to dance all night because she made a breakthrough that she worked very hard for, and virtually no one here wants to get married, least of all the singer of that comedic song. Yes, I was surprised too. And I loved it.
Eliza’s mother is missing (typical for 20th Century heroines), and her father is negative help. Selling flowers to grandly attired patrons exiting the Opera at Covent Garden, she flies into a rage when seemingly threatened by a professorial notetaker. Professor Henry Higgins is not actually a police detective, but he would make a great law enforcement asset; his genius at linguistics allows him to tell the backstory of anyone by listening to them speak a few lines.
Females in Covent Garden risk being mistaken as sex workers—which Eliza definitely is not (any “Pretty Woman” comparison is inaccurate—other than the “hired jewels,” it is a different story). Eliza’s loud, strident self-defense can be interpreted as immaturity and lack of impulse control. She also has a zest for life and fierce independence.
When the prodigiously talented yet insufferably haughty Professor Henry Higgins makes fun of Eliza’s low-born accent, her response to being taunted and looked down on is not to hate him and all elites. Eliza actually listens to the Professor’s supremely rude tirade. Yes, he acidly taunts her wretched clothes, dirty face, and dismisses her as a squashed cabbage leaf. But he also says that with the right voice lessons, he could turn her into the Queen of Sheba.
So Eliza shows up at his house for voice lessons. Yes, she does. She wants a better job—selling flowers in a shop rather than on the street. For Professor Higgins and his colleague, Colonel Pickering, it is a challenge and a contest, but the genesis of the main storyline is not a bet. Eliza offers to pay the man, who snottily insulted her, to obtain the education necessary to advance her career prospects. Comically, Eliza’s class impediments extend beyond grating speech: she cannot sit on a couch, lacks familiarity with such social niceties as handkerchiefs, and unsolved murders of gin-soaked relatives constitute her idea of small talk with brand new acquaintances.
Eliza is well-played by Madeline Powell, whose soaring soprano reaches every heart in the grand hall. The sound of her voice alone is worth the price of admission. Powell manages sweet chemistry with the third-wheel Colonel, played to great comic effect by John Adkison, who never misses a laugh. Madeline Brennan, as the arch Mrs. Pearce, also comes through with the script’s sarcastic one-liners. Daniel James Canaday’s foppish “Professor Zoltan” is a treat, as he has fun with over-the-top villainy: “I make him pay through the nose. I make them all pay.”
Jonathan Grunert is perfectly cast as this production’s Professor Higgins. It is a tough role to navigate. The script’s Higgins is a cohesive character, but just barely. The absurdity of a society man and his wealthy guest taking in a young woman they picked out of “the gutter” is acknowledged. But Professor Higgins does the relative math on her proposed payment for diction lessons and sees how much she would sacrifice from her point of view. While the proposed fee may be absurdly low to him and the Colonel, when it comes to assuaging his ego, he can rouse himself to look at something from another person’s vantage point. Ordinarily, however, he is markedly self-absorbed. Throughout the play, the chorus of Higgins-bashing disapproval is that he cares only about himself.
The beating heart of this satisfying comedy is that things are not what they seem, or rather what society says we should see. While Higgins is grotesquely dismissive of “prisoners of the gutter,” at least he blames the gutter. He isn’t laughing at the song “Why Can’t the English” speak English, although the audience is. For all of his snobby delivery, what Professor Higgins is actually saying is that the lack of education—to which he deems everyone is entitled—is the culprit.
If one’s elderly relative’s preference is to ignore gay people (not recommending that) then that can be done here—the jokes are ambiguous and only really emerge toward the end. The Colonel has a revealing phone conversation with an old friend, but the Professor is arguably a straight-up misanthrope (pardon the pun). True, he has a song devoted to the lament “why can’t women be like men” (date of play: 1956). But his first song on his confirmed bachelorhood is a hilarity in self-deception: right after he lets a woman in his life to literally live with him, he sings a whole song about how he’ll never let a woman in his life. There is ambiguity here: he may be unable to befriend women because of societal stereotypes forcing them into (at least outwardly assuming) subservience; there is support in the text when he and Eliza have their grand falling-out that he is disgusted by servitude. According to Professor Higgins, he is a confirmed bachelor because he can’t even be friends with a woman without ensuing frivolity, and if he gets married, his home will be filled with an army of her friends’ chatter and a large vulgarian mother with a voice that shatters glass.
For all of his shamelessly self-absorbed behavior, he is sufficiently calculating to maneuver the ball at the embassy. And, at the show-down scene with Eliza at his mother’s house, a defiant Eliza, encouraged by Mrs. Higgins’ disloyalty to her son, tries to play it cool. Professor Higgins bellows at Eliza, “Don’t you dare try that game on me. I taught it to you.”
Professor Higgins repeatedly offensively objectifies Eliza, for example calling her creature, as if he were Dr. Frankenstein. I do not interpret it as sexual. “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” is a ballad of a terminally lonely man who only belatedly realizes the value of human intimacy—not sex, for him, but a sharing of his life’s passion. Only one of the uber-catchy tunes is actually about falling into romantic love: “On the Street Where You Live,” performed with complete perfection by Cameron Loyal as Freddy. Loyal’s voice is a smooth wave of pleasure. Freddy’s puppy love is poignant, but Loyal’s rendition conveys the ecstasy of unbridled passion. Just let them stop and stare at his pathetic devotion; he’s on a high.
While the Higgins-Eliza relationship is not about sex, the play has plenty to say about the imposed gender roles of the times. A battle of the sexes is cued early with the specter of white-clad suffragettes and their signs demanding the right to vote. It is possible that the Professor’s mother never really liked him, and that he was infantilized by her or, more likely, his societal privilege.
The Professor’s mother, played with convincing precision by the commanding Becky Saunders, negatively reacts to the Professor’s appearance at Ascot. “Henry what a disagreeable surprise.” In her defense, he did fail to don frou-frou clothes, and the Colonel had already indiscreetly bragged that her son was bringing a girl and “wants to try her out first.”
Whatever maternal failures Professor Higgins may have suffered, nothing pales to the parenting horror that is Alfred Doolittle, a red-cheeked alcoholic played with bigger-than-life joviality by Michael Hegarty. The song title “With a Little Bit of Luck” is familiar. The finisher of that thought is not a treacly little hope, but rather “with a little bit of luck someone else will do the work.” He is an unabashed hypocrite, scoundrel, schemer, and liar, who sells Eliza for five pounds when he learns from the neighbor that “Eliza is in a tub of butter.” When the neighbor announces the coup de grace line of gossip, that Eliza sent for some of her things but said “never mind about sending any clothes,” her father declares, “I always knew she had a career in front of her yet.”
Professor Higgins immediately calls Mr. Doolittle’s bluff and says he is free to take his daughter home. “What’s a five-pound note to you and what’s Eliza to me?” the elder Doolittle asks. “Have you no morals?” is the shocked rejoinder. “No.” The bluntness of this admission gets big laughs, but then Mr. Doolittle continues: “I can’t afford them, and you wouldn’t either if you were as poor as me.” He then proceeds to torpedo any sympathy (at least for him personally) by shamelessly admitting that he is an inveterate drinker undeserving of charity and satisfied with that state of affairs. But in addition to demanding credit for honesty, he demands payment because he supported his daughter until she “grown old enough to be interesting to you two gentlemen.” Professor Higgins notes that Doolittle could be a successful politician (albeit in Whales) (ahem, not just there) and pays up.
The set, costume, and lighting designs present one visually balanced tableau after another. The audience is first treated to a projection of London on a scrim. The color palette is a Constable-esque wash of earth tones, but the painting style presents as more watercolor than oil paints. As the action starts, the projected painting gives way to black streetlights holding sentry in the luminous London fog. The first scene, in the streets of Covent Garden, is awash in browns, blues, and burnt sienna. The busy stage is managed by effective spotlights, for example when the gentlemen make their appearance.
Higgin’s two-story study and library emerge and recede throughout. This mammoth set piece is outfitted in meticulous period detail, featuring a spiral staircase, ironwork balustrades, multiple wall-mounted lamps, a two-story arched window with a tree outside, the requisite soaring shelves of books, and multiple tools of phonetics scholarship. There are phonographs and a somewhat menacing speech articulation anatomical chart on the second floor.
In the full ensemble numbers, particularly the day at the races, the lighting changes to dramatic effect, coalescing with the extravagant costumes and lush orchestral accompaniment. The visual palette is always gorgeously managed.
The beauty of the Ascot scene cannot be overstated. The costumes are everything one expects from a national tour. Towering hats are festooned with feathers and netting, putting those puny “fascinators” now bedecking the London glitterati to shame. Feet of roped pearls finish off layers of silk and satin skirts, sashes, and coats. These ladies of high society are grandly accessorized by parasols and male escorts. The color palette starts with baby blues and the palest of lavenders and taupe, but once the races start, a glowing violet washes over the spectators. In a wonderful feat of sound engineering, we hear and feel the galloping of the horses from one side of the hall to the other.
Eliza’s wardrobe, paid for by the Colonel once she is taken in for her metamorphosis, is visually and thematically perfect. She looks gorgeous, but in addition, the adorable dresses she wears for her speech and etiquette lessons have flourishes of children’s clothing. The youthful propriety makes it clear that her place with the Professor and Colonel is, as they keep saying, completely innocent.
And of course, the winning wager is consummated at the iconic ball scene. The waltzing cast is elaborately costumed, and Eliza’s entrance is as dazzling as Cinderella joining her cartoon ball.
As memorable as Eliza’s ballroom triumph has been, this play (or this production at least) is the anti-Cinderella. When Professor Higgins tells Eliza that his mother could find her a husband, she righteously bristles. Oh, we were aware of that in Covent Garden, she says. But “I sold flowers. I didn’t sell myself.” Between those lines and the true context of “Get Me to the Church on Time,” this production is counter-cultural, maybe even radical. If it is not entirely anti-marriage, it reveals--without challenge--the characters’ attitude that marriage is something only the rich do for money, or arguably class. In the mother of all bachelor parties, marriage is parodied in a circus-themed brothel, complete with gender-fluid can-cans and ringmaster, and ending with the prospective groom being carried off like a corpse to his figurative death, i.e., the marriage ceremony.
The orchestra is just a delight—what musical theater used to be. Different musicals may call for an overriding drumbeat with musicians and dancers racing to beat the clock. My Fair Lady, by contrast, harkens back to the time when melodies, lyrics, and scenes washed over you. In this production, the gorgeous musical compositions rise and swell with rich vibrations. One has time to think about things, including, what is this play really about?
This production of My Fair Lady is fantastically cast and executed. If you think it is not timely, think again. It is first and foremost a comedy lampooning societal assumptions. This production has a satisfying ending if you believe everyone getting what they deserve is a good ending. The show is a great opportunity to enjoy a comfortable theater with families ages 10+. The tour is only in Dallas through November 13; I recommend getting tickets soon.
Dates: November 2 – 13, (11/2, 11/3, 11/4, 11/5, 11/6, 11/8, 11/9, 11/11, 11/12, 11/13 at 7:30 p.m. and 11/5, 11/6, 11/12, 11/13 at 1:30 p.m.)
Music Hall at Fair Park, 909 1st Ave, Dallas, TX 75210
For information and Tickets go to https://broadwaydallas.org/shows/my-fair-lady