My Fair Lady
Until Saturday 11 February 2023
Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s musical adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion has been a perennial favourite since its debut on Broadway stage in 1956. The tale of the cockney flower girl taught to speak properly by the boisterous and bullying phonetics professor in a will they-won’t they semi-romance has captivated audiences all over the world. However, people might be forgiven for wondering if its elements of misogyny and social stereotyping might render it unwatchable by a modern audience, or to be viewed only as a period piece. Bartlett Sher’s spectacular 2018 production for The Lincoln Center Theater in New York, currently touring the UK, takes account of society’s changing attitudes and adds a cinematic flow that brings the piece up fresh for a new generation of theatregoers.
My Fair Lady sits high in the pantheon of musicals, considered by many to be one of the finest shows ever written. Alan Jay Lerner’s book and lyrics took the best of Shaw’s writing and, with Loewe’s timeless melodies introduced a sparkling score, full of eternally popular songs like I could have danced all night, On the Street where you live, I’m getting married in the morning, etc.In reimagining the show, Sher has taken a scalpel to the script, rather than a sledge hammer, excising short lines here and there and inserting small sections from Pygmalion where they help to illuminate the characters. Other changes are in the playing, serving to redress the balance somewhat between Eliza and Higgins. The ending is also not the same but I will not spoil it here. The magnificent sets by Michael Yeargan deserve special mention. Covent Garden is imposingly conjured. Higgins’ house is a huge revolving construction that allows characters to move from one room to another, delivering an exceptional flow and making light of preconceived ideas of the inflexibility of stage sets. For a touring production it is a spectacular achievement.
The large musical numbers are exuberantly choreographed by Christopher Gattelli and delivered with great attack and skill by a terrific ensemble.
More than most shows, My Fair Lady’s original performances are iconic. Rex Harrison’s brusque Higgins was immortalised in the film version alongside the waifish, captivating Audrey Hepburn, though her singing was dubbed by the ubiquitous and versatile Marni Nixon, also responsible for Natalie Wood’s vocals in West Side Story and Deborah Kerr’s in The King And I. Devotees of the cast albums know that Julie Andrews created the role and it is her voice most people hear when they imagine the songs. Stanley Holloway also recreated his imposing stage performance as Eliza’s father, the eloquent reprobate, Alfred P Doolittle.From this, it’s clear that any new cast has big shoes to fill. In the main, people should rest assured that this cast are up to the task. Charlotte Kennedy as Eliza, gives an assured performance, delivering the right mix of feistiness and vulnerability. Her Eliza is not as overawed by Higgins as in some previous productions and she is delightfully raucous in her early scenes at Higgins’ house. She has good comic delivery and her gaffes in the Ascot scene are very funny indeed. She also shows the ability to mimic which Higgins mentions in the script more than I have seen previously. Vocally, she has no difficulty with the range of the part and, if she lacks the mellifluous tones of a Julie Andrews, she nonetheless gives the songs full value, to the delight of the press night audience.Emmerdale’s John Middleton is likeable and amusing as Colonel Pickering, Higgins’ friend and colleague. The estimable Lesley Garrett has very little to do as Mrs. Pearce, Higgins’ housekeeper, but she brings authority to the part.
Heather Jackson is a soigneé and authoritative Mrs Higgins, wearing Catherine Zuber’s beautiful costumes with great aplomb.
Eastenders’ Adam Woodyatt is a likeable Doolittle but his light voice and his understated performance seem somewhat slight for this larger than life character, who is relied upon to bring the down-to-earth fun to this otherwise rather cerebral and wordy show.
Tom Liggins is refreshingly energetic as Freddy, Eliza’s would-be beau. The role is underwritten and the actor needs to bring a lot to it themselves. His rendition of the signature ballad, On the Street Where You live is engagingly acted and beautifully sung.
The highlight of this production, however, is Michael D Xavier’s extraordinary performance as Henry Higgins. Eschewing Shaw’s and Harrison’s insistence that Higgins was not really changed by Eliza, this production clearly shows that he is shaken to his roots by his inability to process his feelings for her.Xavier meets Shaw’s description of an appetising bachelor of about 40. Tall, handsome and imposing, he is confident, bordering on arrogance, in his teaching and his views on society. Nonetheless, he is seen as a misogynistic mother’s boy, petulant and irascible. Xavier gives rein to his considerable comic talents without ever undermining the stature of the role. There are hints of Hugh Grant and even John Cleese but these are subtle and nuanced. His rich baritone voice adds to the musical numbers without ever overpowering them and his rendition of the climactic I’ve Grown Accustomed To Her Face is as accomplished a portrayal of someone falling apart before your eyes as you are likely to see. One hesitates to describe a performance as definitive but, for me, he sets a new standard for the role.
(If you will forgive me a personal note, at this point I should probably declare an interest. I’ve appeared in 6 productions of this show over the years and played Higgins 3 times so I count myself as rather difficult to please.)
To sum up, this is a terrific production that will stay long in the memory, and one against which all future productions will be measured. I urge you to go and see it. Magnificently staged, persuasively performed and exceptionally entertaining, it brought this hardened theatregoer joyously to his feet.
Review: Jonathan Cash
Photos: Marc Bremner
My Fair Lady will grace Sunderland Empire’s stage from 1 – 11 February 2023. Tickets are available from the Ticket Centre on 0844 871 7615* or online at https://tinyurl.com/MYfairLADYtickets*
*A £3.65 transaction fee applies to telephone and online bookings. Calls cost up to 7p per minute plus your standard network charge.