First produced in 1956 and based on an even earlier 1913 play by George Bernard Shaw, My Fair Lady has certainly been around long enough to have become a recognizable part of the cultural canon. But if you make it to the Kravis Center’s current production of the musical, which is playing there until this April 24th, you should come prepared for a few major surprises.
The show’s basic plot involves uptight phoneticiain Professor Henry Higgins’ efforts to transform crude cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle into someone who can comfortably circulate in upper-class society by transforming her patterns of speech. Predictably, Higgins and Eliza begin to care for each other over the course of this process, and, at least as the show is conventionally staged, the situation progresses as you might imagine it would in any modern-day rom-com. But behind this frothy romance, the show does contain some deeper cultural commentary, mostly regarding how fragile and arbitrary the boundaries can be between one social class and another.
However, in softening the satirical intentions of George Bernard Shaw’s original, and in being so thoroughly of it’s own distant era, My Fair Lady is an odd fit for this day and age, this despite director Bartlett Sher’s attempt to update his version of the show by incorporating some additional dialogue from that original and from Shaw’s script from the 1939 screenplay in an attempt to deepen and update the proceedings.
Even a notable twist on the show’s traditional ending doesn’t feel like quite enough to make its overall vision cohere; while Higgins does now at least get some semblance of comeuppance for his elitist and sexist views and his outright abusive treatment of Eliza, it isn’t quite enough to make spending the play with him as a seeming romantic lead more palpable, especially if one goes in unaware of where things are headed based on exposure to previous versions of the story.
Particularly egregious is “A Hymn To Him,” which directly centers on Higgins’ misogynistic musings as he wonders for the length of a song “why a woman can’t be more like a man,” but his overall chauvinism and self-importance is aversive throughout.
The added dialogue also didn’t do much to hasten a somewhat slow-moving plot. Additionally, it felt for much of the play that we were being encouraged to laugh at as opposed to with Eliza, which, in the context of her character’s underprivileged status, felt a little uncomfortably like punching down.
And though the casting of Arab-American actress Shereen Ahmed (though I’m only aware of her ethnicity from her bio, as she read as relatively white to me from my place in row Q) and Black actor Martin Fisher as Alfred P. Dolittle is certainly commendable, it almost made the implications of some of these moments and of Higgins’ elitism even more unfortunate, which was particularly noticeable during the scene where Alfred surrenders Eliza to Higgins for a sum of five pounds.
Still, there are plenty of reasons why this show stood the test of time, Lerner and Loewe’s charming score chief among them. The cast is also up to the task of delivering the strong character work necessary to convey such distinct and strong-willed characters. Laird Mackintosh excelled as the smarmy Higgins, while Ahmed expertly pulled off her character’s extreme transformation while making her underlying self-possession and charisma apparent throughout. Ahmed’s vocal talent also made classic songs like “I Could Have Danced All Night,” as enjoyable as ever, and the supporting players were equally adept at fleshing out the play’s distinct and well-defined world.