Bartlett Sher’s Lincoln Centre Theatre staging of My Fair Lady injects a New York bezzaz into Lerner and Loewe’s 1956 musical based on George Bernard Shaw’s 1913 play Pygmalion. It’s the tale of the ubiquitous English class system – phonetics professor Henry Higgins boasts that he can pass off a Cockney flower girl as a duchess at London’s Embassy Ball in six months, by levelling out her “guttersnipe” vowels into King’s English. He is taken up on the bet by his colleague Colonel Pickering and the battle to turn rebellious flower girl into gracious duchess begins.
Designer Michael Yeargan’s eye-catching sets bring a new focus to the well-known classic, and Catherine Zuber’s over the top Edwardian costumes and fantastical hats give a nod to the 1964 film’s Cecil Beaton designs for Ascot. The cast is untiringly energetic, with outstanding performances from the leading actors. As Henry Higgins, Downton star Harry Hadden-Paton conveys every inch the irritable neuroticism of the unfeeling professor who fails to connect that words aren’t only the “language of Shakespeare and Milton”, but instruments that can hurt. The colour-blind casting of Eliza and her father Alfred P. Doolittle, emphasise the class and race divisions that remain in today’s Britain .
Rising young star Amara Okereke in the title role of Eliza Doolittle is sensational. She has a glorious lyrical voice and can also bring off a full range of screeched and distorted vowels before she reaches the ultimate triumph of “The rain in Spain.” Her song “Just you wait, Henry Higgins” is splendidly vengeful, contrasting sublimely with “I could have danced all night.” Dialogue and lyrics flow, demonstrating how very close this musical is to opera, as in “On the street where you live” sung by Sharif Afifi as Freddy Eynsford-Hill.
Vanessa Redgrave as Higgins’s exasperated mother wears the relaxed kaftan of an Edwardian “soul”. Eliza’s dustbin man Dad, Alfred Doolittle is played by
Stephen K. Amos as a cheerful retrograde making good use of the cards he’s been dealt. Malcolm Sinclair’s Colonel Pickering, as a restraining influence on the professor’s mania, is a model of gentlemanly manners, though it’s suggested that both he and the prof’s attitudes towards the “fair sex” were irrevocably distorted during their public school days.
The afterword to the play Pygmalion is one that has exercised both Shaw, the original author, and also the creators of My Fair Lady. Did Eliza marry her admirer Freddy Eynsford-Hill, with whom she left the Higgins household after flinging the professor’s slippers at him? Or did she return to Henry Higgins, and the prospect of further egotistical neglect? The question is answered delicately though definitely, and is a heart-catching conclusion. Brava to the Eliza of Amara Okereke!
Production Photography; Marc Brenner