My Fair Lady – Neither Shaw nor Lerner and Lowe

Imagine Stella DuBois of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire throwing her husband Stanley out on the street and setting up house with sister Blanche. What if, in Arthur Miller’s A View From the Bridge, Eddie Carbone got counseling about his obsession with young Catherine or was hauled into court for sexual harassment? We don’t muck around with iconic drama.

What makes producers feel it is necessary to tinker with classic musicals, updating and/or making them politically correct? (The disastrous revival of On A Clear Day You Can See Forever in which its protagonist was made gay is a perfect example.) And why oh why do the estates of these pieces allow such a thing?

Writing speaks to time, place, circumstances and character. That was then, this is now. The work of Williams and Miller continues to affect because stories are universally relatable. Death of a Salesman still makes grown men cry. Do we send Willy Loman to an analyst or give him a mentor job at a start-up?!

Lauren Ambrose

In Playbill, Director Bartlett Sher is quoted as saying, “My version (of Lincoln Center’s My Fair Lady) leans much more towards Eliza and what Eliza goes through,” an intention shared by neither George Bernard Shaw nor Lerner and Lowe. And by the way, his attempt is not successful for anyone cognizant of the source material. Changes feel entirely out of place. If you want a different play, commission one.  Lucas Hnath’s Doll’s House Part II took a classic further. Aaron Posner’s freewheeling Stupid ______ Bird rewrote Chekhov’s The Seagull.

Sher notes My Fair Lady hinges on the dynamic between Eliza Doolittle and Henry Higgins. This was ostensibly his motivation for casting a young man in the pivotal role. We no longer find a confirmed bachelor who, firmly fixed in his ways, is blindsided by Eliza’s youth and freshness, but rather a young man who’s more susceptible to romantic inclination.

This director pointedly shows signs of his hero’s emotional involvement. His “a confirmed bachelor like me” falls without weight. Higgins is nowhere near a peer to Colonel Pickering. Gone is the implicit understanding of two single, dedicated men of a certain age. Later at his mother’s, Higgins storms at Eliza, “If you can’t appreciate what you’ve got…” gesturing towards himself. The journey is far too quick, much too easy.

Harry Hadden-Paton, Lauren Ambrose, Allan Corduner

If you’re with me so far, ask yourself whether you want to see Alfred P. Doolittle singing “Get Me to the Church on Time” with a chorus that includes bearded men in drag-corsets and garters. Really?! In a local tavern of 1912 London?!

Additionally, we have suffragettes marching through – briefly implying change afoot, so Eliza has the sisterhood behind her, and obstinate, egotistical Henry Higgins actually telling the girl he respects her more for throwing his slippers at him! I won’t even get into the ambiguous ending which, in a presumed attempt to fall in line with Shaw’s original finish, is a contemporary cop-out.

Sher seems to have a habit of blowing the budget on a single piece of Set to the detriment of others. The impressive ship seen for only one song in The King and I   left the usually opulent palace bereft of décor. There were rationalizations, but it looked as if the court had just returned after the place had been sacked.

Norbert Leo Butz and the Company

Here we have Higgins’ splendid revolving, two story home (the director is partial to things that move) with four different sections: a well employed library, a barely used front hall, an examination room, and a tiny courtyard – the latter two expendable, but for structural reasons. (A front stoop is picturesquely manifest.) The thing spins so many times you may get vertigo. A tavern and fences indicating Doolittle’s neighborhood and row houses (elsewhere) look like sets of a low rent touring company. (The tavern opens to reveal Photoshopped clip art!) Set Designer, Michael Yeargan.

While we’re on the subject of direction, Sher’s proclivity for making a character suddenly walk across the stage for no reason (Pickering is often a victim of this) and/or carefully sing successively towards each section of the audience allowing vantage points, is dramatically vacant. Why is is Eliza forced into the shower with her underclothes, shoes and hose on? Would the Higgins we know let her get away with literally stalking off every time she’s fed up with a vocal exercise?

Zoltan Karpathy, the ex-student who tries to unmask Eliza (Manu Naran)  is played like a vaudeville ponce, robbing him of credible cleverness and ambition. When Higgins sings… Would you complain if I took out another man… (“Why Can’t a Woman Be More Like a Man?”) Pickering freezes like a deer in headlights. He might be gay-get it?

Lauren Ambrose and Diana Rigg

My Fair Lady is a wonderful show. None of this will discourage most people from going. There were laughs that indicated first time attendance. By now, you’ve read a number of glowing reviews. Have you noticed few journalists criticize the big ones?

Lauren Ambrose (Eliza) has a lovely voice. Sound Design (Marc Salzberg) doesn’t sufficiently compensate for its smallness, however. In my opinion, acting highlights were a palpably awkward, then disastrous turn at Ascot and her angry, distressed, disoriented “Show Me.”

Harry Hadden-Patton makes a too-charming young swain (where’s his crust?) and is unfortunately behind the orchestra on several numbers. Allan Corduner’s Colonel Pickering is self-contained and expressionless when not involved in major interaction.

The reliable Diana Rigg (Mrs. Higgins) is wry and imperious. Norbert Leo Butz’s (Alfred P. Doolittle) hasn’t quite secured the accent, but brings deft physicality and wit to the role. Jordan Donica’s pretty tenor (poor British accent) works well for Freddy Einsford Hill, but he’s dramatically helpless when Eliza comes on to him and looks ridiculous trailing after her, for some reason at quite a distance.

Catherine Zuber’s Costumes are flattering, period perfect and sartorial (where apt).

Photos by Joan Marcus
Opening: Harry Hadden-Paton and Lauren Ambrose

Lincoln Center Theater presents
My Fair Lady
Book & Lyrics- Alan Jay Lerner; Music- Frederick Lowe
Directed by Bartlett Sher
Music Direction-Ted Sperling
Vivian Beaumont Theater
150 West 65th Street

About Alix Cohen (968 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of eight New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.