'My Fair Lady'? The production at the Opera House is more My Meh Lady
The arrival of the touring production of the 2018 Lincoln Center revival of “My Fair Lady” was eagerly anticipated not only for Frederick Loewe and Alan Jay Lerner’s songs, but also for director Bartlett Sher’s gentle tweaking of the story to reflect George Bernard Shaw’s play more accurately.
So, it’s disappointing to report that in the production that stops at the Citizens Bank Opera House through April 30, nearly every corner has been cut to adapt this “My Fair Lady” to a national tour.
The story follows Shaw’s “Pygmalion,” in which a phonetics professor makes a bet that he can teach a cockney flower seller how to be a lady in six months. Along the way, we are treated to such magnificent songs as “With a Little Bit of Luck,” “I Could Have Danced All Night,” “On the Street Where You Live” and “Get Me to the Church on Time.” And because this is musical theater there is a bit of romance — or manipulation depending on your perspective — that Sher’s revisions acknowledge and build on.
Perhaps it’s understandable that Lincoln Center’s revolving set had to go, but along with it went the subtle point about the razor-thin differences between the lavish home of Henry Higgins and the “undeserving poor’s” curbside camps. Scene changes become an endless succession of shifting flats and scrims that fly in and out, but rarely help bring us into the story. Somehow the adjustment to different stages (Boston is the largest city on this tour), has left the actors dwarfed by a space that is too big for them. In a pivotal, confrontational scene between Henry and Eliza, the duo keeps marching back and forth across the width of the stage, directing their remarks near, but never to each other.
Although every member of this company displays outstanding vocal prowess, especially Madeline Powell as Eliza Doolittle, this is not a concert and it’s not enough to sing the notes beautifully. Little attention has been paid to character development or storytelling, making this production feel like the Cliffs Notes version of the musical. To be fair, Powell does her best to connect to her scene partners and is most successful with John Adkinson’s Colonel Pickering. Adkinson manages to reveal a surprising bit of complexity and humor in the man who is mostly a foil for the bombastic authoritarian Henry Higgins (Jonathan Grunert), but Colonel Pickering and Eliza seem to connect only through a few well-placed sidelong glances.
At its heart, “My Fair Lady” — especially with Sher’s tweaks to the book — traces the shift in perspectives between an ambitious young woman who is ready to pay for elocution lessons to improve her opportunities to support herself and the egocentric teacher who not only takes credit for her achievements but treats her like a piece of property he has purchased. To empathize with these characters, even the pompous Higgins, we must see that tension and the shift.
But Grunert seems to have just finished memorizing his blocking, and too often his movements are so carefully calculated to land on a particular lyric that he seems to have little understanding of the words he is singing or saying.
The highlights of this production come not from the character-driven story, but from two standout production numbers, the “Ascot Gavotte,” a delightfully showy array of oversized hats, gowns, top hats and tails that provide the perfectly shocked reaction to Eliza’s exuberant support of a horse race; and “Get Me to the Church on Time.” While Michael Hegarty infuses Alfred P. Doolittle with the appropriately blowsy intelligence, this big production number brings the show to life when — wait for it — a quartet of men decked out in bustiers, wigs and bridal veils join the can-can girls to dance up a storm.
But this lively number only served as a reminder of the unimaginative choreography (was it simplified for this touring production?) and mostly plodding pace. What gets lost, unfortunately, is Eliza’s independent spirit, leaving us to see this glorious musical simply as a museum piece.
"My Fair Lady" continues at the Citizens Bank Opera House through April 30.