‘My Fair Lady’ revival gives us a fabulously empowered Eliza and more

Director Bartlett Sher’s staging turns away from the rom-com aesthetic that defined both the 1956 Broadway debut and the 1964 movie.

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Shereen Ahmed as the street-smart flower girl Eliza Doolittle in The Lincoln Center Theater Production of “My Fair Lady,” currently playing at the Cadillac Palace Theatre.

Shereen Ahmed as the street-smart flower girl Eliza Doolittle in The Lincoln Center Theater Production of “My Fair Lady,” currently playing at the Cadillac Palace Theatre.

© Joan Marcus

Roughly 65 years since it debuted on Broadway, the music of “My Fair Lady” remains as lush and melodious as you’d expect from an indisputable classic. All those glorious show-tune oldies — “On the Street Where You Live,” “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly,” “I Could Have Danced All Night” — sound fabulous in a production running through July 10 at the Cadillac Palace Theatre.

In the national tour of director Bartlett Sher’s Tony Award-winning production for Lincoln Center, the musical inspired by George Bernard Shaw’s play “Pygmalion,” turns away from the rom-com aesthetic that defined both the 1956 Broadway debut starring Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews and the 1964 movie starring Harrison and Audrey Hepburn.

‘My Fair Lady’

my fair lady

When: Through July 10

Where: Cadillac Palace Theatre

Tickets: $27– $118

Run-time: 2 hours, 50 minutes, including one intermission

Info: Broadwayinchicago.com

Sher grants the cockney flower seller Eliza Doolittle (Shereen Ahmed, the first woman of color and Arab descent to play Eliza in a national U.S. tour) an autonomy and spirit that’s missing from many more traditional productions of the Alan J. Lerner (books and lyrics) and Frederick Loewe (score) musical. Still, with the male lead as utterly misogynistic, arrogant and thoughtlessly cruel as linguistics expert Professor Henry Higgins (Laird Mackintosh), the nearly three-hour production can be a tough sit.

The plot follows Eliza, who turns to Higgins for elocution lessons so she can get a proper job in a shop. She moves in with the professor and his fellow bachelor chum Colonel Pickering (a droll Kevin Pariseau ). Higgins is so confident he can pass Eliza off as royalty within six months, he makes a wager on it.

“Why Can’t the English Learn to Speak” offers a window into Higgins’ elitist motivations. As he emphatically explains in song, those who do not elocute proper English as practiced by Great Britain’s learned elite are doomed to lives of poverty and are as worth noticing as the dust beneath one’s feet. “Wouldn’t it Be Loverly” gives us Eliza’s dearest dream: enough money to stay warm in the winter.

Throughout, Sher subtly emphasizes how personal wealth defines how we move through the world. Eliza’s two silent interactions with a policeman are telling: As a flower seller, she quickly scuttles away when the officer shoots her a threatening look. When she’s dressed up and passing as a lady of means, the cop greets Eliza with a tip of his hat and a smile.

Kevin Pariseau (from left) as Colonel Pickering, Laird Mackintosh as Professor Henry Higgins and Shereen Ahmed as Eliza Doolittle in “My Fair Lady.”

Kevin Pariseau (from left) as Colonel Pickering, Laird Mackintosh as Professor Henry Higgins and Shereen Ahmed as Eliza Doolittle in “My Fair Lady.”

© Joan Marcus

There are two moments in particular that address Eliza’s indomitable will. The first comes when Higgins offers Eliza his arm as they head out to a ball. She takes a long moment before accepting, and when she does, she lays her elbow on top of his, her body language elegantly emphasizing her command of the situation. The second involves a set of house slippers and can’t be described without spoilers other than to say it’s a simple, radical reimagining of the story’s end that’s long overdue.

On the way to Eliza’s transformation from “guttersnipe” to purported royalty, the robust 33-member ensemble and conductor John Bell’s 15-person orchestra make that marvelous score sound terrific.

“I’m Getting Married in the Morning” is a raucous bacchanal thanks to Martin Fisher’s rendition of Eliza’s drunken father Alfred P. Doolittle. When Sam Simahk’s besotted man-child Freddy Eynsford-Hill refuses to leave Eliza’s doorstep until she agrees to meet him, he makes “On the Street Where You Live” sound swoony even when the lyrics are stalker-y.

As Eliza, Ahmed gives us a flower girl who is nobody’s victim. The ethereal reach of her glittering soprano sails through “I Could Have Danced All Night.” In “Show Me,” she checks Freddy with demanding, defiant confidence. When that endgame with the slippers plays out, Ahmed strides with the purposeful carriage of a queen overseeing her realm.

Higgins, on the other hand, is prone to infantile tantrums, none so revealing as “Hymn to Him.” As he spits that he’ll remain a bachelor for eternity because (among other reasons) women are “maddening and infuriating hags,” Mackintosh makes Higgins a man on the verge of a nervous breakdown. As Shakespeare would say, he’s protesting way too much. Freud would have a field day with the number.

The show looks as good as it sounds. Costume designer Catherine Zuber’s creations are worthy of “Downton Abbey,” while choreographer Christopher Gattelli creates elegantly gliding waltzes and exuberant stompers that play out with grace and power on Michael Yeargan’s rotating, interlocking Rubik’s cube-meets-dollhouse set.

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