Review by Nathan Top
In the past century of American musical theater, there can be counted on one hand the number of genre-defining musicals. One of the fingers on that decisive hand would be “My Fair Lady,” a show that has set expectations and become a hallmark in what we define as musical theater.
Based on Bernard Shaw’s classic play “Pygmalion,” “My Fair Lady” tells the story of Eliza Doolittle, a working-class girl with a heavy Cockney accent who desires to get a job in a floral shop. When Eliza inquires of Professor Henry Higgins on how to change her accent, she becomes the key variable in a wager between Higgins and fellow linguist Colonel Pickering, with Higgins betting he can pass Eliza off as a proper lady of society. Often cited as one of Broadway’s greatest musicals, “My Fair Lady” is iconically clever, with script and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner and music by Frederick Loewe.
Directed by the visionary Bartlett Sher, this production feels less frivolously whimsical than one might expect. Greater emphasis is given to the emotional beats of the show, at times as heartbreaking as humorous. Focus is also given to the treatment of women (with women’s suffrage signs floating in the background early on), becoming a major theme of the show. Also ever-present is the musical’s commentary of social class, with a heavily satirized display of the upper-class in the number “Ascot Gavotte” (which holds my favorite joke of the show).
The costuming by Catherine Zuber is beautiful and lavish. While Eliza Doolittle’s “transformation” dresses are stunning, the real star garments are the ensemble outfits during the “Ascot Gavotte,” which includes beautifully gaudy hats and dresses on the high-society women. Michael Yeargans set designs are also impressive, creating a large open world, oftentimes with surprisingly simple solutions.
The music is superb, directed by John Bell. The ensemble numbers sparkle in the spacious auditorium and the heavily orchestrated pit, primarily consisting of local pros, is full yet unobtrusive. The musical arrangements have been appropriately updated between Josh Clayton and Ted Sperling, featuring tighter vocal harmonies.
The cast is as vibrant as I have ever seen. Shereen Ahmed plays the leading lady Eliza Doolittle, who has both mastered the cockney accent as well as perfect English for the role. Her singing is beautiful (“I Could Have Danced All Night”) and acting equal parts audacious and devastating. Kevin Pariseau and William Michals as Colonel Pickering and Alfred P. Doolittle respectively each know how to deliver a punchline and, combined with Christopher Gattelli’s choreography, have great moments of physical comedy as well (“Get Me to the Church on Time.”). Sam Simahk is winningly naive as the romantic hopeful Freddy Eynesford-Hill singing my favorite tune of the show “On the Street Where You Live.”
The most impressive load of the show was carried by Laird Mackintosh as Professor Henry Higgins, who carries the show as a frustratingly dislikable character. Under Sher’s direction, the character loquacious Higgins doesn’t end up with an unearned redemption story as many other productions are ought to do. Instead, Mackintosh leans into the objectionable behavior of Higgin’s character, leading to a surprisingly unique and powerful ending.
‘My Fair Lady” is a bucket-list show for any musical enthusiast and this stunning production is not one to miss. Broadway is Cincinnati presents “My Fair Lady” the North American Tour the Lincoln Center Theatre Production (which opened at The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. December 2019). You can see it now through February 20th at the Aronoff Center in Cincinnati. Tickets can be purchased here. COVID PROTOCOLS: Masks and Vaccination ID needed, for more information explore health and safety.
Nathan Top is a Cincinnati-based playwright and musician. Nathan works as a freelance trumpeter and pianist, performing in big bands, pit orchestras, and pop groups throughout the area.