First things first, so as not to bury the lede: The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain, though on Tuesday night it rained everywhere it pleased in Middle Tennessee. Thankfully, it remained dry inside TPAC’s Jackson Hall where the stunning Lincoln Center Theatre revival of Lerner and Loewe’s My Fair Lady opened for its Nashville run. And, man oh man, is it a loverly night in the theatre.
When it comes to taking classic American musicals and reinventing them for contemporary audiences, no one does it like Lincoln Center Theatre. Since their 1994 revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel, they’ve more or less owned the game. In some cases, it’s delicate resculpting to highlight different moments or themes. In others, it’s CPR and putting the paddles and clearing the room. My Fair Lady hews closer to the former. With minor injections of lines and sentiments from George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, the play upon which the musical is based, she’s still the same Eliza Doolittle, but with a bit more steel in her spine.
All this is thanks to one man. In another generation, perhaps the one in which Frederick Loewe and Alan Jay Lerner created My Fair Lady, the name of director Bartlett Sher would be known in households across the nation. Families would be gathered in front of the television to watch the Ed Sullivan Show on CBS and they’d witness a young English actress named Julie Andrews singing songs from a smash Broadway musical that was the toast of the town. The man behind the magic would be introduced to the studio audience as one of the most electrifying and insightful directors of the past fifteen years, an auteur whose work on Broadway and in opera houses around the world was exciting and heartbreaking all at the same time.
Yet, in 2020, Sher’s work is known but to those devotees of the live theatre and doesn’t carry the cache once accorded to names like Jerome Robinson, Hal Prince, and Gower Champion. But the director behind such incredible Lincoln Center Theatre musicals as The Light in the Piazza (2005) and the breathtaking 2008 revival of South Pacific and the 2015 revival of The King and I has made a name for himself in both pioneering new works and reimagining classics.
Such is the case with his 2018 revival of My Fair Lady, the smash 1956 musical that made Julie Andrews a star. It takes a certain amount of balls to try and unearth new content with the classics, to be honest. When you have both a film (the classic, yet so-so 1964 adaptation starring Audrey Hepburn (and dubbed by Marni Nixon) and Rex Harrison) and a very living Julie Andrews who created the role and recorded it twice, once in monoaural for Broadway and later in stereo for London, re-thinking My Fair Lady requires a little chutzpah.
Sher’s glorious revival of My Fair Lady takes material well-known to just about everyone and vividly restores it, taking the classic off the wall and cleaning it up to reveal the underlying vitality found in Shaw’s original play. Most of us are familiar with Audrey Hepburn’s lithe, spirited, but mostly well-behaved Eliza from the film. In the end, she comes back, just as Rex Harrison expects her to. She is largely worn by her costumes, frothy confections by Cecil Beaton, rather than the other way around. And the story’s context just sort of feels out of touch for our era.
Enter Shereen Ahmed. No shrinking violet she (ha… inside joke), Ahmed’s Eliza Doolittle is a cunning creature who knows a chance when she sees it. There’s a fearlessness she builds into her Eliza that is thrilling. It may, at first, seem like innocence or ignorance, but Ahmed’s Eliza gambles and wins. Clad for battle in Catherine Zuber’s elegant couture designs, Ahmed goes round for round with Professor Higgins and emerges, in the end, a lady. Ahmed’s creamy soprano weaves beautifully around the Cockney-accented songs and emerges with a silvery purity with Eliza’s ladylike voice in “I Could Have Danced All Night.” It’s clear that Ahmed should become a force within musical theatre. If she can handle this score eight performances a week, she should be set.
And then there’s her Higgins. Allow me, if you will, to journey back to the Summer of 1995. I was barely 13 the first time I ventured to Toronto and saw Laird Mackintosh as Raoul in The Phantom of the Opera at the Pantages Theatre. It was my first real musical and Mackintosh played the dashing young Vicomte, Christine’s lover. There’s something immensely emotionally satisfying in coming full-circle with an actor and Mackintosh’s Henry Higgins is smashing. Instead of Rex Harrison’s talk-sing approach to the role, Mackintosh is able to balance his gorgeous voice against the talk patter the role is written for. Yet it’s his emotional vulnerability that sets him apart from Harrison’s original. Mackintosh’s Higgins is transparent: a man-child unable to juxtapose love into the life of his confirmed old bachelor.
In the scenes the two share, and there are many of them, the evolution of their relationship is clearer in Sher’s production than perhaps ever before. As she finds her spine, his is all but lost, leaving him blubbering for mother (a splendid Leslie Alexander). Kevin Pariseau’s Colonel Pickering feels somehow underutilized. The character is, for the most part, window dressing, or perhaps a humanizing veneer against Higgins’ early patterns. But after his chauvenistic mutual admiration society number with Higgins, “You Did It,” he’s all but done.
Without Eliza’s father, Alfred P. Doolittle, the comedic bubble would be burst and My Fair Lady would be a rather dour affair at three hours long. But thank goodness there’s Adam Grupper playing Doolittle, the most original moralist in England. He sends his numbers, “With a Little Bit of Luck” and “Get Me to the Church On Time” all the way to the very back row of Jackson Hall. The latter, reconceived as an Edwardian Music Hall number, is a real showstopper.
Not to diminish the show’s human stars in any way, but Michael Yeargan’s set is one of the most impressive we’ve seen this season at TPAC. In some moments, the look is painterly with the emotive colors of J.M.W. Turner. And then reality presses through impression with Higgins’ London townhouse emerging from behind a scrim, gliding forward in near full scale. Reimagined for a proscenium stage instead of the Vivian Beaumont Theatre’s thrust-stage configuration, the set still does other tricks that I’d prefer to let you be surprised by when you get to see it happen in person.
If there is a “But…” to be had, it’s a small one. While fifteen musicians in the pit is high for a lot of road tours, compared to the twenty-nine who played the original Robert Russell Bennett orchestrations at the Beaumont, the lush sound you’re expecting sometimes feels a little thin. Que sera sera… the score is still gorgeous and the show’s overture one of the most thrilling ever to be played in the theatre. With a big beautiful ensemble numbering 33 actors onstage, you’re treated to visual splendor at every turn.
My Fair Lady is often called one of the “perfect” musicals. Created in the Golden Age of the American musical, it balances a witty book with songs worth their weight in gold. And, though it’s a hard claim to make, this may be as close to the perfect production of the show as you’ll ever see. It’s a big show, boldly staged, beautiful to look at, and has more talent per square inch than that 40-foot stage deck can hold.
My Fair Lady plays TPAC’s Jackson Hall through Sunday. Tickets are available at TPAC.org.
Read more by O&AN’s Will here.