Performing Arts

Theater Review: ‘My Fair Lady’ In a Mostly Glorious Production

BY Betty Mohr TIMEJuly 4, 2022 PRINT

CHICAGO—Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers, and Oscar Hammerstein turned down the opportunity to adapt George Bernard Shaw’s 1913 “Pygmalion” play into a musical comedy. It was too wordy, they said, and not romantic. It would never work as a musical.

Indeed, Shaw’s drawing-room comedy of class differences in which Henry Higgins teaches Eliza Doolittle to use proper English didn’t look to be a promising idea for a musical. Shaw seemed more interested in exploring how social classes are differentiated through the use of language rather than the mechanics of love.

But perhaps there was a love story in it, thought librettist Alan Jay Lerner and composer Frederick Loewe. After all, Shaw titled the play “Pygmalion” after the Greek myth in which a sculptor falls in love with his marble statue. And so they decided to take up the challenge, and in so doing they created an extraordinary combination of story and music, developing what some have called the perfect musical. That’s why, since its premiere on Broadway in 1956, “My Fair Lady” continues to play over and over again.

The latest revival of the show originated in the Lincoln Center Theatre in New York City and is now touring in major cities in America. As such, it is now in a terrific new incarnation at the Cadillac Palace Theatre in Chicago.

With the story once again about Eliza Doolittle, a Cockney flower girl who comes to the attention of Professor Henry Higgins, the new revival is faithful to the original production. Higgins bemoans the coarseness of Eliza’s speech and makes a proposal to Colonel Pickering, a retired officer interested in linguistics, that within six months he could pass off Eliza as a respectable lady by teaching her to speak proper English.

My Fair Lady-wouldn't it be loverly
Shereen Ahmed (C) as the street-smart flower girl Eliza Doolittle in “My Fair Lady.” (Joan Marcus)

In reviving the show, its director, Bartlett Sher, did have a problem: How would he present a show for a new audience without offending contemporary sensibilities? Sher solved that issue by turning Henry Higgins from just an arrogant snob into a more childlike man and making Eliza a bit less of a pushover.

The Glorious Aspects

Thankfully, not a note of the glorious music has been changed.  When, in so many musicals today, we’re lucky if a show has one or two good songs, “My Fair Lady” features more than a dozen remarkable numbers. And it’s not just that the songs advance the story and are delicious in their own right, but that the songs perfectly delineate the characters of the show, which the actors do a great job of portraying.

As Eliza, Shereen Ahmed soars with a lovely soprano. When she sings “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly,” we know how downtrodden she has been; when she sings “I Could Have Danced All Night,” we feel her exultation; and “With Just You Wait,” her anger is palpable.  As Higgins, Laird Mackintosh does a nice job of portraying the arrogant elitism of the misogynist professor, delivering a very funny “”A Hymn to Him” (“Why Can’t a Woman Be Like a Man”).

Kevin Pariseau is a charming Col. Pickering, who is concerned with whether Higgins is a man of good character where a woman is concerned. Martin Fisher as Eliza’s father, Alfred P. Doolittle, a dustman who enjoys his drink, is a delight as he rails against living a life of middle-class morality. You can immediately size up the man’s character the moment you hear him sing “With a Little Bit of Luck” and “Get Me to the Church on Time.”

In addition, Sam Simahk’s lovelorn Freddy Eynsford-Hill, who promises to wait until forever for Eliza, delivers a glorious rendition of “On the Street Where You Live,” and Leslie Alexander is engaging as Higgins’s mother who sides with Eliza to put her son in his place.

My Fair Lady-How Do you do
Leslie Alexander (L) as Mrs. Higgins, Shereen Ahmed as Eliza Doolittle. (Joan Marcus)

Integral to the production is an exceptional orchestra, led by John Bell, giving a fantastic musical score the great sound it deserves. Adding to the exhilaration of the show is choreographer Christopher Gattelli who creates elegant dance moves for the ensemble.

Furthermore, the show looks as good as it sounds. Michael Yeargan’s dollhouse set is an elegant backdrop for the action, and costume designer Catherine Zuber elegant threads are so stunning that at one point they received applause from the audience.

my fair lady-At the Ascot
“At the Ascot”: Shereen Ahmed as Eliza Doolittle in forefront with some of the ensemble in “My Fair Lady.” (Joan Marcus)

Although the adaptation of the musical was turned down by other composers for its lack of romantic interest, Lerner and Lowe succeeded in making it a love story by ending the show with “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face.” The composing duo not only made “My Fair Lady” one of the most beloved musicals of its time, but for our time as well.

‘My Fair Lady’
Cadillac Palace Theatre
151 W. Randolph St., Chicago
Tickets: BroadwayInChicago.com
Runs: 2 hours, 50 minutes
Closes: July 10, 2022

Betty Mohr
As an arts writer and movie/theater/opera critic, Betty Mohr has been published in the Chicago Sun-Times, The Chicago Tribune, The Australian, The Dramatist, the SouthtownStar, the Post Tribune, The Herald News, The Globe and Mail in Toronto, and other publications.
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