Encore Michigan

‘My Fair Lady’ at Wharton is updated for modern sensibilities while holding on to Golden Age roots

Review March 01, 2020 Bridgette Redman

LANSING, Mich.–There is a great divide in our country. People are polarized, each group is passionate about their positions, convinced they are right and often living in an echo chamber where they hear only those who agree with them.

No, they’re not progressives vs. conservatives or blue vs. red.

They’re those who love Golden Age musicals and those who love modern, post-2000 musicals.

They can especially get riled up when you take a Golden Age musical and modernize it to current sensibilities and perform it with current practices that conform to new social mores.

My Fair Lady can be found in the eye of this artistic hurricane, with supporters and detractors on both sides. The arguments could be heard from people filing out of the Wharton Center’s Cobb Great Hall after the opening night of the touring production. The changes the show made from the 1956 original Lerner and Lowe musical range from subtle to game-changing.

Bartlett Sher’s directing takes into account both modern sensibilities and has an Eliza who takes the kind of journey we’ve now heard many women take in our #metoo world. What was once considered curmudgeonly bachelor behavior, now feels like abusive gaslighting. We also live in a world where drag performers are neither outrageous nor scandalous, so having them a part of the beloved “Get Me to the Church on Time” is thoroughly entertaining and does not feel at all out of place.

My Fair Lady has always been about the battle of the sexes and Sher layers on an additional level of complexity while retaining all of the show’s entertainment and joy. He recognizes those moments that today’s generation would find uncomfortable and allows each character to either grow from the moment or reveal their misbehavior.

For the purists in the audience, there was some grumbling. My Fair Lady in its prime was called “the perfect musical,” and there are those who wanted to see what they had always seen rather than be challenged with issues out of today’s headlines.

Shereen Ahmed bore the greatest responsibility of making sure the show didn’t ignore the misogyny Eliza was subjected to. As the flower girl turned sophisticated lady as part of Henry Higgins’ language experiment, she traveled a complex arc that showed her growth and introduced a subtext of growing awareness of and resistance to verbally abusive behavior.

In addition to her strength of character, she has a beautiful voice that is filled with character. She doesn’t just sing her numerous solos and ensemble pieces, she fills them with life and charm.

Laird Mackintosh was also more than up for the challenge of presenting an irascible Higgins who is completely blind to his own misbehavior and cannot fathom why he should be condemned for treating Eliza like an extension of his own will, a toy to manipulate for his own purposes. He makes Higgins almost larger than life and just when the audience is ready to hate him for his cruelty, he displays a charm and brilliance that draws them back to him, clearly illustrating why someone would be devoted to him despite his behavior.

The affable Col. Pickering is the bridge between Eliza Dolittle and Henry Higgins, loyal and caring to both. He’s both an enabler and a protector and Kevin Pariseau makes him lovable and intelligently ignorant.

Eliza’s father is a determined rascal, having no desire to rise above his station as a swindler and a member of the “undeserving poor” class. He eschews all morals and Adam Grupper fills the character with personality and energy. He fulfills the role of Shakespearean clown, presenting the lower class to the audience as a function of pure entertainment who rejects all of society’s expectations and demands to devoutly pursue a hedonistic lifestyle of drink, dance and irresponsibility.

When this show was originally written in the 50s, few musicals were produced where there wasn’t a love story that ended in a “happily ever after.” The original “Pygmalion” by George Bernard Shaw, upon which the musical was based, presented Freddy as a possible love interest and in this production, Sam Simahk’s Freddy steps right up to the line of being a parody of the young lover. He had a puppy like devotion to Eliza after first meeting her because she is so unconventional.

But Freddy is in love only with an idea. He doesn’t know Eliza at all, despite his hanging out in almost stalker-like fashion on the street where she lives and sending her two to three love letters a day. Simahk makes Freddy an empty-headed young thing who delights in Eliza and treats her as well as Higgins treats her poorly.

As the only person on stage who can see through the inappropriate behavior of both Higgins and Freddy, JoAnna Rhinehart’s Mrs. Dolittle, Henry’s mother, is sharp-witted and shows what Eliza could become–a powerful, intelligent woman who lives in a society that restricts her sex, but manages to rise above it.

The technical choices made in this show also help underline the themes while enhancing both the period and the show’s pacing. Michael Yeargan created sweeping set pieces that could easily roll in and out and move the actors and audience from scene to scene, providing elaborate back drops for everything from taverns to city blocks to detailed, upscale homes. Henry Higgins’ house was a particular work of art, rotating with a speed that matched the rhythm of the music, suggesting a dizziness while showing off rooms in a house that had depth rather than sprawling them out across the stage.

Catherine Zuber’s costuming squarely sets the show in the Edwardian period. Each costume was thoughtful in color and style, allowing the characters who wear them alternately fit in or stand out from the others around them and from the expectations of a rigid society. The costuming was especially fun in “Get me to the church on time” scene where drag queen and drag king played out the roles of bride and groom and contributed to a wild final night of bachelorhood for Alfred Dolittle.

My Fair Lady towers high among the favorites of Golden Age musicals and Sher recognizes the elements that are problematic to today’s audience. He’s taken an already great musical and shown that it isn’t at all dated but instead can continue to challenge audiences while still giving them their musical favorites and a thoroughly enjoyable three hours.

Week of 8/10/2020

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