by Lynn on May 27, 2024

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at the Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont. Playing until Dec. 22, 2024.

Book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner

Music by Frederick Loewe

Adapted from the George Bernard Shaw play Pygmalion

Co-directed by Tim Carroll and Kimberley Rampersad

Choregraphed by Kimberley Rampersad

Music director, Paul Sportelli

Set by Lorenzo Savoini

Costumes by Joyce Padua

Lighting by Mikael Kangas

Sound by John Lott

Cast: David Adams

David Alan Anderson

Alana Bridgewater

Shane Carty

Sharry Flett

Kristi Frank

J.J. Gerber

Patty Jamieson

Allan Louis

Tom Rooney

Taurian Teelucksingh

And a chorus

A beautiful classic musical, with some wonderful performances, but on the whole I found it underwhelming.

The Story. My Fair Lady by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, is one of the most beloved musical of all time. It’s based on George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion which is in turn is based on the Ovid poem in his Metamorphosis of a sculptor named Pygmalion who created a sculpture of the perfect woman and then fell in love with her. The gods brought her to life.

We are in Edwardian London (1901-1919). Henry Higgins is a professor of phonetics and speech. He wagers his friend Colonel Pickering that he can take a cockney accented flower girl named Eliza Doolittle whom he discovered in Covent Garden one evening, change her accent and demeanor and pass her off as a duchess in six months.

George Bernard Shaw was writing about the class-conscious English and how an accent can keep a person back from success—regardless of ability, intelligence and talent. Lyricist and book writer, Alan Jay Lerner was an educated, erudite man—he studied at Harvard. And he respected Shaw’s philosophical, shewed, social commentary in the play and kept most of the dialogue intact. It was Lerner’s partnership with the elegant European composer Frederick Loewe that resulted in such a strong and successful collaboration. My Fair Lady was one of Lerner and Loewe’s most successful musicals.

The Production and comment. Lorenzo Savoini has designed a gleaming set that is both the grunge of Covent Garden (1901-1919) and the elegance of the Ambassador’s Ball. There is a walkway above the stage for some scenes and a projection of St. Paul’s Church in the distance.  Higgins’ house is a two storied affair with a wall of books on the upper level and a winding staircase down to the stage and all manner of gadgets and gizmos for recording the voice.

Joyce Padua’s costumes are wonderful. For the Covent Garden scenes they are well worn, rough, dark in colour and sturdy. For the upper-class Ascot scene or Ambassador’s Ball they are beautifully tailored for the men and women. The men wear top hats, the women wear fascinators.

My Fair Lady is a wonderful love story between Professor Henry Higgins (Tom Rooney) and Eliza Doolittle (Kristi Frank), but of course it’s not that simple.  It also has one of the most romantic, lush scores by Frederick Loewe with classic after classic: “Wouldn’t it Be Loverly”, With a Little Bit of Luck”; “I’ve grown accustomed to her Face”: “On the Street Where You Live, “ “I Could Have Danced All Night.” And on and on.

Alan Jay Lerner’s book and lyrics are witty, elegant and intellectual. He has taken Shaw’s play and been true to its philosophy, the social aspects of the class distinctions and the power of an attitude that thinks an accent suggests ability. His lyrics are full of nuance, subtlety and lyrical beauty.

Higgins is fascinating. We have seen the elegant and sophisticated curmudgeon of Rex Harrison. I’ve also seen Higgins played as if he’s on the autism spectrum—highly functional but a social cretin. He is rude, arrogant, pompous, a confirmed bachelor who seems to love his upper-class mother and drops in on her often. He also respects his mature housekeeper, Mrs. Pierce. He sees the phony world he lives in and has no time for the upper-class folks in it. He certainly knows how these snobs operate and can play in that world.  He is a confirmed bachelor. Interestingly he gets on well with Pickering who in turn appreciates Higgins’ phonetic work.

One might call Higgins misogynistic. Certainly his song: “I’m An Ordinary Man” (in which everything is fine until you ‘let a woman in your life.’) But he then changes enough to appreciate Eliza (“I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face.”) One has to consider the times and the attitudes towards women of the time. Then of course there is the perceived snobbishness of the British towards anyone ‘other.’ (“Why Can’t the English”).

Tom Rooney is one of our most gifted actors.  He mines his roles for clues and hints about his characters. And so I’m surprised that Tom Rooney as Higgins seems so understated, perhaps even underwhelming. This performance is less a social cretin and awkward, and more someone who is just ill-tempered and bored. He both knows the world in which he lives and works, and is clueless about the people in it, except as something to observe.  

Eliza Doolittle is perhaps in her 20s.  She sells flowers in Convent Garden—the first scene is late at night, raining but she is hustling to sell her flowers to the people coming from the opera house. She works long and hard hours to pay for her expenses. She wants to elevate herself out of her current state. She is intrigued by Higgins’ bet and takes him up on it to teach her/Eliza proper English, comportment and how to behave. Her main repeated refrain is “I’m a good girl, I am.” Which means she’s not a prostitute. Her biggest fear seems to be that she will be taken for a streetwalker.

This is not a throw-away line; she is fighting constantly for her sense of self-worth. She is illegitimate; her father ignores her and she just wants to do better, but because of her class and poverty, that is all but impossible, until Higgins arrives.

As Eliza, Kristi Frank has a lovely voice and gives a respectable performance, but she can go deeper to mine the many facets of Eliza. She has charm, but she is also driven, angry, and determined. I thought Kristi Frank just skimmed the surface in realizing Eliza in more detail.

For all their differences in their lives and upbringing, both Higgins and Eliza warm to each other as he toils away teaching her how to speak, act and carry herself.  He in a way is creating his ideal woman, who will be independent to a point, banter and volley with him and not want to change him.

Higgins changes Eliza or rather just gives her the means to be the best person she always was, only this time with encouragement, support and instruction of how to act. While she has feelings for Higgins, and he tries to get over his aversion to touch anyone, she responds instantly to the consideration and good manners of Pickering. He treats her with respect and as if she was a lady. Higgins says that he treats all people the same and that seems fair to him.  He does treat them the same, with disdain.

One would think the Shaw Festival was the ideal place to produce a musical based on a Shaw play. There are indeed some wonderful performances in My Fair Lady. Sharry Flett is Mrs. Higgins and every gesture, pause and turn of the head speaks volumes about her wit, elegance and keen idea about how to inhabit that upper-class world. Mrs. Higgins listens to what is going on around her. If ever there is a character who does treat everyone the same—that is to say with respect—it’s Mrs. Higgins.

David Adams plays Alfred P. Doolittle beautifully, as a rough talking dustman. He has the accent, the swagger and the inebriated manner of a man of the lower classes. When Mr. Doolittle becomes a successful public speaker he becomes prosperous and rises up in class and that too is believable. If ‘clothes make the man’ it helps if the man knows how to wear the clothes, and David Adams is true both as a dirty, rough dustman, and a man who can wear a good suit.

Taurian Teelucksingh as Freddy Eynsford-Hill is terrific. He’s elegant, comfortable in that world, and beautiful suit and he can sing.

As Mrs. Pearce Patty Jamieson has the bearing of a woman who knows the importance of her place as the housekeeper. While Higgins and Pickering see no problem with Eliza living in the house with them, while she is instructed, Mrs. Pearce is wise, smart and watchful, and knows exactly what the optics look like. She also plays the small part of the Queen of Transylvania and she is royally elegant from top to tow. Her one word: “Charming” spoke volumes about the graciousness of that Queen.

I wish I could be as positive about the rest of the production which strikes me as unremarkable (this for a musical that is remarkable). I found in too many places It lacks attention to detail and rigor.

It’s directed by both Tim Carroll and Kimberley Rampersad. She also choreographs. This is Tim Carroll’s first musical so he wanted Kimberley Rampersad to co-direct with him because she is familiar with the musical genre. That might be true, but this musical is dripping in the class consciousness of the time. There is a way of holding oneself, wearing the clothes, knowing the difference between a person in the upper and lower classes, and that was hardly addressed, especially with the chorus here. They didn’t look at all comfortable in those beautifully tailored costumes—nor did they look like they knew how to wear those clothes or ‘work’ the clothes. A top hat has to be worn a certain way—news to some of them.  Sharry Flett is credited as a great resource at the Shaw to address these questions of style etc. Don’t they teach this in theatre schools anymore? Pity.

Everybody is microphoned as is the orchestra so there is a blaring to the sound.

Kimberley Rampersad’s choreography is generic and why they are choreographed to do the CanCan in Edwardian London is a mystery I can’t figure out.

The ending of the show has always been tricky—how does one deal with Eliza coming back? Co-directors Tim Carroll and Kimberley Rampersad handle it with sensitivity.

I think the text offers insight….Eliza argues point for point with Higgins, something she never did before. He celebrates that he made her into a real woman—this is London in the early 1900s so it’s offensive to our modern ears. Consider the times.  She says that he treats people badly and others treat her well. His argument is that he treats everybody the same and does not fluctuate – true…he treats everybody rudely. Eliza will hold her ground.  Higgins gives the impression he might be ‘weakening’ into a decent human being….Interesting. I was glad of that, but wished that more rigor had gone into the whole enterprise.

The Shaw Festival Presents:

Plays until Dec. 22, 2024.

Running time: 3 hours (1 intermission)

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Daniel Liebman May 27, 2024 at 3:47 pm

Thanks for such a thorough, thoughtful, detailed — and excellent — review.


2 Joseph Greco May 28, 2024 at 8:00 pm

so happy to know they loved it ! Going to see it on June 27 th, with my partner & 5
of our friends ! Have been going to Shaw festival from 1970 & have love every show
indeed ! Looking forward to your next season & hope you give the audiences a lot of
food for thought as always do ! Have many friends who use to take in shows from
Cincinnati Ohio ! & they just loved your productions but now only one is still living !
All your eateries are wonderful , but my favorite is the Old Bann Inn ! Thats what we booked way ahead of time ! Do wish your season full of ( JOY ) in my heart ! Hugs to
all your cast & associates in your fine arts ! JOSEPH GRECO & my partner MARK