By CHRISTINE SARKES SASSEVILLE
My Fair Lady at the Guthrie Theater is a lavish musical theater spectacle that stays true to the Lerner/Loewe, Moss Hart Broadway original while adding its own unique touches. The 1956 production set the record for the longest run of any major musical theater show at the time and has been called “the perfect musical.” The film version, starring Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn, won eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture in 1964. Against this backdrop, Director Joe Dowling and his artistic staff were wise to honor the original elements: spot-on casting, soaring vocals, an impressive set design, glamorous costuming, energetic choreography and a live, onstage orchestra. All of these elements combined to create a “loverly” evening’s entertainment suitable for the entire family. I brought my first born, which made for an especially fun mother-daughter outing.
The musical’s storyline follows closely George Bernard Shaw’s original comedy Pygmalion, which was first produced in 1914 and later adapted for musical theater and film. A chance meeting between two noted British linguists, Professor Henry Higgins (Jeff McCarthy) and Col. Hugh Pickering (Tony Sheldon), leads to a wager that will test Higgins’ teaching skills. After they hear a cockney flower girl caterwaul in the street, Higgins boasts he could transform the girl, Eliza Doolittle (Helen Anker), into a refined Victorian lady with an aristocratic accent. Yearning for a better life as a flower shop girl, Eliza agrees to become their test case. She endures the professor’s unique speech training, such as speaking with marbles in her mouth and trying to recite the sentence “In Hertford, Hereford, Hampshire, hurricanes hardly ever happen” without dropping the ‘h’, and to say “The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain.” As a test of her progress, Higgins takes her on her first public appearance to Ascot Racecourse, where she makes a good impression on his mother, Mrs. Higgins (Melissa Hart) and is introduced to Freddy Eynsford-Hill (Tyler Michaels), who is captivated by her unique way of speaking and manners. The bet is won when Eliza successfully poses as a mysterious lady of noble rank at an embassy ball, despite the unexpected presence of a Hungarian phonetics expert trained by Higgins. Higgins’s callous treatment of Eliza afterwards, especially his indifference to her future prospects, leads her to walk out on him, leaving him mystified by her ingratitude. Film and musical theater adaptations have veered from Shaw’s original ending and the Guthrie ably struck a fine balance. Let me take a moment here to praise the writing and relevance of the Guthrie Theater play guides, which always offer fascinating insight into the history and context of the plays. In this case, laying out the reasons for slight variations in the ending and Shaw’s original intent.
The entire cast and crew deserve praise for infusing the play with energy, fine comedic touches and brilliant vocal performances. Of the leads, Anker’s portrayal of Eliza Doolittle was heartfelt, funny and enthusiastic, while McCarthy as Higgins gamely displayed the arrogance and cluelessness of his social class. Supporting cast stand-outs were Sheldon’s Colonel Pickering, Michaels as the lovestruck Freddy and Donald Corren as Elisa’s father, Alfred P. Doolittle. Costume Designer Fabio Toblini, Set Designer Walt Spangler, Music Director Andrew Cooke and Choreographer Joe Chvala should also be mentioned as contributing to a thoroughly enjoyable evening. You will be humming ‘I Could Have Danced All Night” all night.
My Fair Lady, directed by Joe Dowling. Adapted from George Bernard Shaw’s play and Gabriel Pascal’s motion picture Pygmalion, book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner, music by Frederick Loewe. June 28 – August 31 at the Guthrie Theater, 818 South 2nd Street, Minneapolis. General Admission Tickets starting at $34, rush tickets available at www.guthrietheater.org or call 612.377.2224 or 1.877.44.STAGE.