Review: Bartlett Sher’s My Fair Lady, a fresh, loverly production with a curiously unsatisfying end – DC Theatre Scene

Posted: December 27, 2019 at 1:45 pm


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Everyone has a special memory of their first musical. Mine was My Fair Lady. It had opened in London in 1958 on Drury Lane after taking Broadway by storm, and, as a young child living there, I already knew the tunes when I was taken to see Julie Andrews and Rex Harrison. Last night as the first familiar melody in the overture wafted through the Opera House, I was transported all over again. Has there ever been a more loverly, tune-filled musical?

The new revival of the Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe musical came to Washington by way of the Lincoln Center Theatre production with direction by Bartlett Sher. I had been somewhat concerned that George Bernard Shaws story of a stuck-up, upper-class snob and male chauvinistic pig would not stand up to todays lens of social criticism. Lets face it, the guy thoughtlessly plucks up out of the mud at Covent Garden a lower class guttersnipe for his own amusement and social experiment all to demonstrate his prowess at how he could coach get her to pass for a lady.

If Im honest I was equally concerned that Sher would have put the musical through a politically-correct mangle and flatten the work to an unrecognizable pulp. Im pleased to say there was respect and genuine fondness shown for the works beauty, but Sher was willing to point out the characters acceptance of class-conscious snobbery without totally bludgeoning the work.

The creative team gave the work a fresh look, thereby creating a whos who of artists in last years New York awards. The design elements were stunning. From the painted skyline on the front curtain of Old London Town with the iconic St. Pauls dome and smokestacks leading the eye back to the Thames in the background, all seemed to speak of a soft grey, and yes smog-filled world. Set Designer Michael Yeargan and Lighting Designer Donald Holder worked beautifully together to transform this ever-foggy world into a nostalgic romance, with skies shot through with ultra-violet, mauve, and plum.

Catherine Zubers costume designs for the show swept the New York awards last year. Have there ever been more ravishing looks than Elizas runway fashion gowns? Of course there was the one for the princess-at-the-ball entrance then the startling scarlet wildly-sculptured opera-coat that for a moment consciously broke the shows line and palette, but also there was the glory of her Ascot get-up and over-the-top hat that looked like it might set sail away at any moment. Rather than reproduce the iconic Black-and-White starkness of the original Ascot scene design, Zuber had re-invented all the costumes for the end of Act I with dove-grey, dusty rose, and mauve with lines that felt both elegant and ghostlike in its nostalgia. She added the outsize hats, walking sticks, parasols, and viewing lorgnettes to establish a tradition equal parts magnificent and silly as the scene was intended to show.

Shers staging of the Act I ending, as with so many numbers is screamingly funny. How can we ever forget those pre-botox immovable faces as they followed the horses galloping through the Opera House by way of Sensurround sound? And what a most perfect set up for Elizas famous line, Move your bloomin arse! This is a moment of sheer theatrical perfection where character and audience are giddily as one.

Yeargan made great use of a turntable set with an upstairs downstairs feel and incredible attention to detail, where various interior rooms of Professor Higgins house could be accessed by the characters simply walking through a door while the set was moving. At a show that clocked in at just over three hours, this production nonetheless kept things moving, through assisted rolling set pieces by the cast, in transitions into the many venues called for in the story.

Sher relied on bringing out more nuance and layers to the story and characters through simply bringing things into focus just a little bit differently, lingering a moment here, lighting something to lift it out there rather than re-conceptualizing the entire show.

Eliza Doolittle is introduced in a quiet moment. She walks alone through the dusky London evening as the street gaslights are coming on. She walks slowly and then pauses to gaze steadily at the audience. We immediately get the sense she is fearlessly her own woman and will navigate her own way.

Shereen Ahmed is Eliza, and just by the sound of her name we might be tempted to think the production aims to push the theme of immigrants and equate them with a new struggling lower class to make the show into an updated political statement. This is, thankfully, not the case. Instead, the young New York actress, whom the bio notes has her degree from Towson University in Maryland, is accepted by the Covent Garden lot and delivers on her own terms.

Ahmed has feistiness and confidence in her gestural movements and physical engagement. If the voice doesnt have the size or supple dynamics of Julie Andrews, it is nonetheless pleasing. More importantly, she delivers every acting moment with feeling and commitment: from street vendor who has to be scrappy to survive, to a young woman wounded in love, and finally to someone who can stand up to Professor Higgins and show him his own blindness, insensitivity and shortcomings.

My Fair Lady closes January 19, 2020. DCTS details and tickets

Laird Macintosh is terrific as Higgins. He cut a much younger figure than the original Harrison and therefore showed him driven by a kind of restless arrogance the world hadnt put this entitled preppy greenhorn in his place yet and thus he might find redemption. His ranginess and background as a dancer in the Canadian National ballet has made Macintosh graceful as a cat and imminently watchable. He prowled, pounced, stretched out on the settee as if analyzing himself, then suddenly sit up ramrod straight or spring out of a chair all to deliver the sure dynamics of Loewes melodies and Lerners sparkling lyrics in the service to accentuate his characters lightning fast processing of thoughts. Macintosh, as is appropriate for the character, possesses the intuitive mimicry of a catbird in sounds but hes also a damn ruthless observer of body and gesture. He also was hysterical in the second act as a quivering emotional jelly and mamas boy, utterly undone when forced to face his own feelings for Eliza.

Reading Keith Lorias piece on Adam Grupper in the role or Alfred P Doolittle, Elizas dad, I thought it would be more radicalized than in fact it was. Gruppers portrayal of Elizas alcoholic dad played darker more because of what we brought to it our societal condemnation of a deadbeat dad. In fact, Lerner and Loewe argued a water-tight conservative case that Doolittle was undeserving poor more because he refused to accept any responsibilities of work and family his skewering a society that had done im wrong. For all that, Grupper proved a massive stage presence, chilling in one moment but not above a little Knees up Mother Brown with the lads and lasses. Grupper won the audience over with his music hall numbers not with his philosophy, and he didnt come across as your villainous heavy.

The most radical scene in the whole production and the biggest choreographed showstopper was Get Me to the Church on Time which not only had dancing girls doing can-can high kicks but several boys in drag doing a sight more than can-can. Choreographer Christopher Gattelli displayed in the course of the evening his abilities with a wide range of dance styles from the high-centered elegant swaying of the waltzes and the footies of the music hall tradition to the adult-rated aforementioned big number. The eight primary dancers plus the ensemble proved top-notch in all they delivered.

Every role down to cameo performances sparkled in this cast. Gayton Scott as Mrs. Pearce nailed the ramrod housekeeper of the eccentric Professor. Kevin Pariseau made for a delightful Colonel Pickering, short-sighted and silly but full of kindness, a believable throwback to the British Empire in the days of the Raj. Leslie Alexander as Higgins mama was suitably smart with her comebacks and putdowns, first to Eliza and then, when that girl won her over, to her own son. Wade McCollum was suitably oily and over-the-top as Higgins former pupil and rival, Professor Zoltan Karpathy.

Mark Aldrich, Colin Anderson, Shavey Brown, and William Michals with their distinctive, rich voices in the Loverly Quartet were arresting whenever they corralled together and sang. Indeed Loverly! I appreciated many details, including Higgins butler in a cameo, who announced just a little too slowly and perfectly, suggesting Higgins has been a tutor in other social experiments. (I knew just such acquired speakers.)

The most curious and actually radical bit of casting was with Freddy Eynsford-Hill. With the glorious number On the Street Where You Live, one expects and most often gets matinee-idol material and a tenor crooning and winning everyone over simply strolling effortlessly through the song. Sher has gone for something quite different and arresting. Freddy, played by Sam Simahk, is a boyish, even somewhat clownish figure, caught in the stages of puppy love. Simahk gawks, nearly swoons, raises up on his toes, tips off balance, then tries to cover it up. In the swell of music and feeling, he runs downstage to spread his arms as if he would take off and fly. Simahk gives us a likeable but rather pathetic goof, and suddenly we are given to understand Higgins words about what life with Freddy would be like: a kind of Peter Pan never-grow-up figure. An important arc of the story gets clarified in terms of Elizas choices.

The production is almost but not quite flawless. I have two quibbles. I have got somewhat used to American actors struggling with British accents, but in a show about the importance of training the ear to vowel sounds, the migration of such here and there throughout the evening was annoying, especially in the singing. Oh, why cant the British teach their (American) children how to speak?

Most disturbing was the directors curious choice at the end. Im not sure what was intended, but if the story was meant to start as Pygmalion and drift to A Dolls House, then such an event really wasnt supported either by the creators intentions nor an unprepared and unlikely theatrical exit.

In the final analysis, this is an old world musical. Lerner and Loewe were masters of the form. We should revel in the cleverness of the lyrics and the delightful music. Dont we all need just about now a moment where we can pause and go away humming the same tune?

My Fair Lady. Book and Lyrics Alan Jay Lerner. Composed by Frederick Loewe. Based on the play by George Bernard Shaw. Direction by Bartlett Sher. Choreography by Christopher Gattelli. Music Direction by John Bell. Set Designed by Michael Yeargan. Costumes Designed by Catherine Zuber. Lighting Designed by Don Holder. Sound Design by Marc Salzberg. With Shereen Ahmed, Laird Mackintosh, Leslie Alexander, Adam Grupper, Wade McCollum, Kevin Pariseau, Gayton Scott, Sam Simahk, Mark Aldrich, Rajeer Alford, Colin Anderson, Polly Baird, Mark Banik, Michael Biren, Shavey Brown, Anne Brummel, Henry Byalikov, Mary Callanan, Jennifer Evans, Nicole Ferguson, Kaitlyn Frank, Juliane Godfrey, Colleen Grate, Patrick Kerr, Brandon Leffler, Nathalie Marrable, William Michals, Rommel Pierre OChoa, Joanna Rhinehart, Sarah Quinn Taylor, Fana Tesfagiorgis, Michael Williams, and John T. Wolfe. Produced by The Lincoln Center Theatre Production. Presented in the Kennedy Center Opera House. Reviewed by Susan Galbraith

My Fair Lady

Book and Lyrics Alan Jay Lerner

Composed by Frederick Loewe

Based on the play by George Bernard Shaw

Direction by Bartlett Sher

Produced by The Lincoln Center Theatre Production

Presented in the Kennedy Center Opera House

Reviewed by Susan Galbraith

Rating 4

Running time: 3 hours 5 minutes, with an intermission

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Review: Bartlett Sher's My Fair Lady, a fresh, loverly production with a curiously unsatisfying end - DC Theatre Scene

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December 27th, 2019 at 1:45 pm

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