OK, so it was a little strange. Instead of the metal detectors as the only hurdle needed to jump in order to gain entrance (still a little strange and unnerving to me), I now had to show proof of vaccination and be wearing a mask at all times. Looking around the almost filled theatre it brought to mind scenes from various films where galleries of masked doctor’s to be assembled to watch a brilliant surgeon perform medical miracles. But all that aside, I was thrilled. Here for the first time since March, 2020 when I saw a performance of the truncated tour of THE BOOK OF MORMON, I was back in a live theatre, sharing the moment with two thousand strangers as the houselights dimmed and that reassuring voice came over the sound system reminding us to turn off all cell phones and refrain from using light causing devices, talking, or opening cellophane wrapped treats during the show. I felt a chill run down my spine as the curtain rose and there was the outside of Covent Garden Opera House with the upper crust leaving after a performance and the street filled with various vendors and peddlers who rely on the rich to throw them a shilling or two on their way home. In case you have never seen the musical or the film version, here’s a quick synopsis of the plot.
As Prof. Henry Higgins and Colonel Hugh Pickering leave the opera, they encounter Eliza Doolittle who fascinates the Professor, a specialist in diction. Her diction is atrocious to his ears yet his ego can’t help making a bet that in 6 months he can transform her into someone who can pass as a duchess. Higgins puts Eliza through a daunting schedule of diction lessons until, thoroughly exhausted, Eliza has a breakthrough uttering the phrase “the rain is Spain stays mainly in the plain” with perfect enunciation. Higgins takes Eliza to the opening day of the Ascot races to see how she does. Before a disastrous moment, she meets Freddy Eynsford-Hill who falls madly in love with her. Finally, the moment arrives for Eliza’s real debut at a posh ball which she pulls off exquisitely. Higgins has won the bet as everyone congratulates him on pulling it off to the complete lack of any acknowledgement of Eliza’s contribution to his success. She leaves but she does return and here is where the production makes a bold choice. As originally written, Eliza happily stays with Higgins, monstrous ego and all. In this production, however, she turns and walks offstage and apparently out of his life.
The overall production, directed by Bartlett Sher is marvelous. As this is a tour, the set design by Michael Yeargan, is far smaller than the massive stage at the Dolby Theatre, making some of the set pieces look unnecessarily cramped. But again, it is a tour and the set must fit into the smallest houses in which it will play. Higgins home (or at least the three interior locations we see), is set on a turntable, allowing us to watch people move from one area of the house to another in a fluid cinematic style. Most other locales are nicely created via the lush lighting design created by Donald Holder along with backdrops and minor set pieces like lamp posts and door frames. Catherine Zuber’s costumes are spot on and glorious. So much so that twice during the show, at the Ascot and as Eliza enters in the gown she will wear to the ball, received spontaneous applause from the audience.
The performers also deliver in every aspect. Shereen Ahmed gives us an Eliza Doolittle who is not only beautiful and smart but also tough and a survivor. Unlike the Elizas who came before her, this one wants more than than being the wife of a man with an oversized ego and an undersized respect for the opposite sex. She has a beautiful voice that makes every one of her songs by Frederick Loewe hit the bullseye with her strong soprano range and her excellent diction allowed all of Alan Jay Lerner’s romantic and at times clever and amusing lyrics to be appreciated. As Laird Mackintosh gives Professor Higgins just enough warmth to keep him from being a totally self-centered narcissist. Possessing a stronger voice than Rex Harrison, the original Higgins who talk-sang his songs, Laird Mackintosh brings forth more of the melodious beauty of the score without ever dropping character.
Other standouts in this production include:
Adam Grupper, as Eliza’s father, Alfred P. Doolittle, who brings in the laughs with his two big numbers, “A Little Bit Of Luck” and especially “Get Me To The Church On Time.”
Kevin Pariseau as Col. Hugh Pickering, the likeable housemate and voice of reason in Higgins’ ear.
Sam Simahk does the most he can as the love-struck Freddy Eynsford-Hill, the most under-developed character in the show. He does a good job of breathing freshness into his one big number “On The Street Where You Live.”
Just a side note to think about: Doesn’t it seem like something is not being talked about in that Pickering and Higgins are both adults in or nearing middle age, live together and are both professed ‘bachelors’. Discuss…
MY FAIR LADY is at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood and runs now through October 31, 2021.