A Refreshed Grande Dame of Midcentury Musicals Presented in Fine Fashion
By CB Adams
After the two-year black hole that was the COVID-19 pandemic, this reviewer was so happy to have a rear-end planted in a seat in the Fox Theatre, preparing to experience live theater with a live orchestra and a live audience, that I would have been happy just to listen to someone stand on the stage and recite selections from an old phone book.
Instead, as the house lights dimmed and orchestra played the overture to The Lincoln Center Theater Production of My Fair Lady, running at the Fox Theatre from March 22 to April 3, it felt more than a bit like The Wizard of Oz, when the film cuts from black and white into Technicolor.
There has been much written and analyzed about the success of Director Bartlett Sher’s approach to ameliorate some of the uncomfortable sexist and misogynistic moments of this musical – cringey attributes shared by others of the era, such as Kiss Me Kate. But sexism wasn’t limited to that era. It resonated in films such as “Pretty Woman” and even “Indecent Proposal.” In “Pretty Woman,” Julia Roberts’ character sleeps her way to success. In “My Fair Lady,” Eliza speaks her way to a different kind of success.
But this reviewer prefers to leave those discussions off stage. Instead, below is a live tweet-style review of the opening night’s performance, with all its due eager anticipation. All times are imaginatively approximate, but be prepared – this production runs almost three hours. When the company takes its bows, you know you’ve had a musical experience.
7:15 – The Fabulous Fox is full tonight! The stage shimmers lightly with a two-level, austere scrim of the London skyline and a single street lamp.
7:30 – The live orchestra! The overture! Through the heads in front of me, it’s actually exciting to catch glimpses Music Director/Conductor John Bell as he commands his baton. Won’t take that for granted anymore. Thanks, COVID!
7:31 – A spare stage. Silhouetted characters move across the scrim, ending with Eliza, alone, sans flowers. Does this foreshadow Eliza’s predominance in this version?
7:33 – Scene 1! Forgot the first song is Henry Higgins’ “Why Can’t the English?” as sung by Laird Mackintosh in this production. Nobody can top Lerner and Lowe at the height of the Golden Age of musical theater. Come for the songs, stay for the songs!
7:45 – Balancing that Higgins tune is Shereen Ahmed as Eliza Doolittle (I hope she does a lot!) and “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly.” I was worried this might not have aged well, if for no other reason than familiarity can breed contempt. But no! It’s a plaintive call for something better, full of longing and with a pathos similar to “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” Props to Ahmed!
7:55 – Change of pace in Scene 2, set in the dodgy side of town. It’s Eliza’s dad, Alfred, played by the athletic Martin Fisher, with his two sidekicks, Jamie and Harry, played by Wade McCollum and William Michals, respectively.
7:56 – These three engage in bro banter and well-timed roughhousing then segue into a jaunty rendition of “With a Little Bit of Luck.” Fisher’s baritone was unexpected and powerful. It seemed he could roll right into “Old Man River” without missing a beat. Definitely saw Sher’s attempt to soften the sexism by including a trio of suffragettes in the chorus shouting “Our bodies, our choice.”
8:02 – Back to Higgins, now in his two-story Wimpole Street study. Impressive, ship-like set, complete with all the accoutrements of an English academic bachelor: spiral staircase, polished dark wood and brass fittings, a cluttered desk the size of flight deck and yards and yards of books.
8:03 – Higgins’ opulent study is an Edwardian man cave, perfect for cavorting with the Higgins’ old chum, Colonel Pickering (a delightful Kevin Pariseau) that also reveals this show’s high production values. Wow! And that’s thanks to Michael Yeargan, the scenic designer.
8:20 – Jumping to Scene 5, back in Higgin’s study. The set ingeniously turns, revealing different parts of the townhouse. More kudos to Yeargan.
8:30 – Still Scene 5, replete with four numbers that lead to the ubiquitous “The Rain in Spain,” which begins Eliza’s transformation into a “proper” lady with the enunciation to match. Then, “I Could Have Danced All Night.” Ahmed brings a graceful earnestness to this familiar song.
8:40 – It’s the Scene 6 show stopper! Literally. Set outside a club tent at the Ascot horse races, Yeargan’s design includes a striped tent that was supposed to rise above the cast. Problem was, it didn’t rise. Some of the cast members had to step around the tent during the “Ascot Gavotte.” The house announcer told us the show was experiencing difficulties and instructed the cast to leave the stage for their safety. House lights came up for several minutes and the show proceeded. Hey, it’s live theater, people!
8:47 – Despite the scenery malfunction, the Ascot scene highlights another of Yeargan’s brilliant touches. He toggles sets right out of “Decorating Rich” with those like this one that are subtler, cleaner and more contemporary.
8:55 – Scene 7. Another great supporting character. This time, it’s love-struck Freddy, played by Sam Simahk. Singing “On the Street Where You Live” with a powerful tenor, Simahk commands the song and stage. Simahk, along with Fisher as Eliza’s father, may have given the best performances. What’s that they say about no small parts?
9:00 – Act I ends with the presentation of Eliza as she prepares for the embassy ball. As she steps out in a very Audrey Hepburn evening gown, it’s the perfect time to call out Catherin Zuber’s excellent costume designs. Eliza’s evening gown and gloves are perfect and elicited the anticipated oohhs and aahhs, but she becomes regal as she is enshrouded in a high-colored, deep-red cloak. Another noteworthy touch came earlier as Higgins’ house staff prepared to bathe Eliza. As she is stripped down, actually and metaphorically, the process is modestly exemplified by the way the maids pluck her dirty gloves from her hands. Small touch that says so much – love the attention to details like this.
9:20 – Act II, Scene 2. A cringe-worthy scene despite this production’s best efforts. Eliza is back in Higgins’ study after her successful foray into high society. “You Did It” is intended to be a triumphant song, but Eliza is separated physically and emotionally from Higgins, Pickering and the house staff. Higgins takes all the credit for her success while Eliza observes from the periphery. Am I the only one to see the parallels between parts of “My Fair Lady” and “Frankenstein?” “You Did It” is equivalent to Dr. Frankenstein’s “It’s Alive!” Both men are myopically impressed by their own work at the expense of the “creations.”
9:40 – Jumping to Scene 4. A rousing show-stopper with “Get Me to the Church On Time,” sung by Eliza’s father and his cohorts as he prepares to be married. Not sure what purpose this song does to move the story forward, but it is the most vigorous, uninhibited and naughty of the show. A great change of pace as a Moulin Rouge-esque song and dance routine that sneakily – at first – introduces cancan dancers in drag. What?!
10:15 – “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face.” Don’t expect the Rex Harrison styling of this classic. Mackintosh’s Higgins is a linguistic king baby who cries for his mommy after Eliza leaves him in an earlier scene. Here, he grapples with his two sides – will he or won’t he. He waffles, like a Jekyll and a Hyde (apt since he played the Utterson character in “Jekyll & Hyde”) and the song ends with no clear decision.
10:30 – Not exactly the ending I expected. No spoilers. See “My Fair Lady” for yourself. It’s worth it.
11:30 – Back home. Thinking of that ending. It’s not a Hollywood ending, but it may be the best or most-right ending to a musical that others have described as “perfect but not great.” Thinking also of two moments as the audience walked toward the exits. Two separate individuals in two different parts of the theater were quietly singing, “I Could Have Danced All Night.” Nothing says “Great show” better than that.
Performances of Lerner & Loewe’s MY FAIR LADY at the Fabulous Fox run March 22 – April 3. Show times are Tuesday through Saturday evenings at 7:30 p.m., Saturday afternoons at 2 p.m. and Sunday afternoons at 1 p.m. There will be an evening performance on Sunday, March 27 at 6:30 p.m. and a matinee performance on Thursday, March 31 at 1 p.m. Tickets on sale now at MetroTix.com or by calling 314-534-1111. For more information, visit www.fabulousfox.com
Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat and contributes to other publications. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association. She is a founding member of the St. Louis Theater Circle.