The production of “My Fair Lady” at the Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theatre, directed by Bartlett Sher, is yet another well-executed revival of one of Broadway’s most memorable shows.
“My Fair Lady” is an adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s 1913 play “Pygmalion,” a variation of the Greek myth of Pygmalion. In the original myth, Pygmalion was a sculptor who fell in love with his statue of a woman, and after praying to the goddess Aphrodite, his fetishized statue is brought to life.
In Shaw’s play, he placed the myth in London, exorcised the mythical aspects and replaced Pygmalion and the statue with English linguistics professor Henry Higgins and a Cockney peasant flower vendor named Eliza Doolittle. Higgins takes Eliza in on a bet he made with an English colonel, named Hugh Pickering, that he can pass off a rude-mannered street girl as a duchess at a ball. Eliza, meanwhile, becomes determined to better herself to spite — and become independent of — Higgins.
“My Fair Lady,” which is so faithful to the source material that it can be accurately summarized as “‘Pygmalion’ but with songs added,” made its Broadway debut in 1956. With book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner and music by Frederick Loewe, two men whose numerous shows remain popular to this day, the musical was so successful that it became one of the longest-running Broadway shows of its day (only to be beaten by the 1964 musical “Hello, Dolly!”). The 1964 film adaptation won eight Oscars, and four revivals of the show (excluding the current one at Lincoln Center) have been produced on Broadway, making it one of the most recognizable Broadway shows.
The feminist aspects of the show varied from production to production, with some shows leaving the relationship between Henry and Eliza as ambiguously romantic. The Lincoln Center version, however, restores the feminist values — even if the feminist message does become a bit heavy-handed at points. Most notably, a random march of London suffragettes was added during a transition between scenes in Act I; no character remarks on it, the right to vote never becomes a plot point and seems its only purpose is to honor the Women’s March and #MeToo protestors. It sticks out like a sore thumb, which is odd considering another progressive aspect of the production is handled with much more subtlety. Eliza’s love interest, Freddy Eynsford-Hill, is portrayed by Christian Dante White, an African-American, and the show successfully portrays the progressive concept of a multi-racial relationship without drawing any attention to it.
Harry Hadden-Paton and Laura Benanti, who portray Henry and Eliza, respectively, work very well with each other. Hadden-Paton’s Higgins is so full of himself that one can’t help but laugh at how chauvinistic he is, while Benanti’s Eliza exhibits a fierce desire to be independent that resounds with modern audiences. Their ability to speak and sing clearly through thick British accents, especially with the infamously hard-to-comprehend Cockney dialect, makes their performances even more memorable. Unfortunately, Danny Burstein, who portrays Eliza’s father, Alfred Doolittle, exaggerates his accent too much, although it becomes much more bearable by Act II when he sings the show-stopping number “Get Me to the Church on Time.”
Accompanying the comedic dialogue and characters are Lerner and Loewe’s lovely and melodic score. The Lincoln Center’s orchestra amplifies each song’s notes and makes the listener nostalgic for the more orchestral scores of old times. The dancing numbers are also especially good and are blissfully devoid of the erratic “modern dance moves” present in other productions. The main problem, however, is that some of these songs last too long and halt the plot’s progression. This is especially problematic in the show’s second half; aside from “Get Me to the Church on Time,” the denouement and resolution is absolutely packed with songs. Even though there are many songs in the first act, they serve to advance the plot.
The set design and costumes are two of the most well-executed aspects of the production. Each costume is richly detailed and seems like authentic Victorian attire, a stark contrast to the less civilized t-shirts and baseball caps of today. What is really astounding, however, is the set. Designed by Michael Yeargan, not only is it richly detailed, but one set piece — the professor’s study — is breathtaking. It is as though the production team gutted a house and put it on a rotunda — it is a two-story, multi-room complex packed with small details like plants and bookcases filled with actual books. For theatregoers who appreciate the art of set design, this set is a must-see.
“My Fair Lady” is currently running without an end date in sight. Students should see it, not only because of its importance in Broadway history but also as an example of an old musical that exhibits feminist attributes.