Contains Plot Spoilers
The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust ushered in a revival of one of the most beloved musicals, My Fair Lady, featuring a loverly (I know, I know but …) twist that celebrates everything Eliza Doolittle was and became after she met Henry Higgins. A review.
This is a newer version of the story, supposedly more true to the original manuscript. Known as the Lincoln Center Production, it brings controversy. The ending of the Lincoln Center Theater production does not add or omit any lines, but — spoilers ahead — sees Eliza walk offstage after tenderly patting Higgins on the cheek. My fair lady indeed.
As you probably know from the movie version, My Fair Lady explores the shenanigans of a linguistics professor and his financier as they try to convert a Cockney flower girl into a lady, mainly through changing her dialect. Her ferocious desire to improve herself and take care of herself puts her on a collision course with Higgins’ plans to simply prove his linguistic theories correct. More on that.
The musical – long at nearly 3 hours with an intermission – is a gorgeous reminder of the absolute power of musical theater. The song! The singing! The costumes! The dancing! It was a colorful explosion of creativity and staging.
For me, the most impressive stagecraft were the scenery and props. As the settings rolled on stage in a most lyrical way, I was struck by that choreography as the stage crew and cast adroitly took us from the sidewalk of the Opera House to a tenement, then to both the interior and exterior of Henry Higgin’s home, to the races, to Higgins’ mothers house. We even get a chance to shout “Take Me To Church” after a few stops at the local tavern. That’s quite a lot of scenery to manage swiftly in the dark in front of thousands of eyes, eyes belonging to a generation accustomed to how Rex Harrison educated first Julie Andrews then Audrey Hepburn.
Like them, I remembered the theatrical version of what I also thought was a love story. That was a mistake. Yes, I did think Rex Harrison was a ridiculou;us old lover for Audrey Hepburn, but I failed to understand that my discomfort was not about the obvious age difference, but the fact that Eliza outgrew Henry.
Eliza was a better person at the onset even though she was poor and had a ridiculous family. Henry had the advantages of a very nice mother, lots of money, professional success, and being a man. He was an ass, as we might say in Pittsburgh, a jagoff. And he had no idea that he was – like the scenery – the means for Eliza to realize her potential. He had no such growth in him. He doesn’t deserve my fair lady or any lady.
I appreciate the lovely things because there are several not so lovely elements – the repeated classist and sexist debasing quips about Eliza and her family were hard to hear although understandably appropriate for the time period. My discomfort is perhaps that those conversations continue today.
Henry failed to recall that Eliza came to him in hopes he could help her improve herself. The student sought the teacher. She was the catalyst for the change in her own life because she was smart, hard-working, and willing to learn. The skills that protected her in the tenements also served her well navigating an upscale home with servants and a tyrannical master.
Higgins does unlock Eliza’s potential, but again fails to realize what he’s also unleashed. Or how he’s empowered her already fierce spirit and sense of self-worth. Eliza changes herself by seizing an opportunnity, Eliza sees how her new found knowledge opens the world even further.
This ending of this My Fair Lady version has Eliza walk offstage after tenderly patting Higgins on the cheek. It is quite controversial on the My Fair Lady online discussion spaces. Honestly, we don’t know where Eliza is heading or what comes next. Maybe she does return to Henry. Maybe she opens a flower shop. It is precisely that “maybe” of all her possibilities that lifts this musical into the modern world without betraying its beloved history.
The Benedum is a gorgeous venue reminding me very much of the opera house Bertha Russell fights to build on The Gilded Age. Our seats were about halfway to the back on the stage level. We looked at the boxes and wondered about the experience of watching a performance from up there. I snuck out before intermission to use the bathroom and then sat with the ushers to watch the video projection in the foyer until the coast was clear to return to my seat.
But our seats were limited. I could not hear the lyrics very well. My familiarity with the show filled in the gaps, but sound quality is important in a musical about linguistics.
Another dismaying moment was when the ushers whispered about my attire – I had spent the afternoon visiting my cats so I was wearing leggings, a long sleeve shirt, and a sweater. But it was cold, so I had thrown on my lumberjack zipper hoodie AND forgot that I was wearing my LL Bean hiking boots. And here’s where the Cultural Trust loses younger audiences – mocking me was not cool. It was “stage whisper” volume mentions of “those boots” and “that jacket” and “remember when going to the theater meant furs, pearls, and blah blah blah.”
I’m right there. The only person in sight at that moment who was dressed in boots and a jacket. Mind you no one in our vicinity was in a fur. The snobbishness is the worst example of ignorance and quite repellent. Who cares what I wear? No one is looking at me. I’m not on stage. Yes, I wore hiking boots, but there’s a reason and not one I need to offer everyone I meet. This same scenario happened two other times with patrons. And it is sad. Your beloved theater will not survive without properly inviting Generation Y and the Alpha Generation whose fancy clothes money goes to student loan debt you won’t help alleviate.
Talk about missing the theme of the show.
The Trust cannot control the rudeness of their patrons, but they can certainly remind the ushers to zip it. If you want new audiences, you – like the writers – have to keep up with the times. Furs and fusty attitudes are not appropriate.
The performances. Anette Barrios-Torres as Eliza Doolittle, John Adkison as Colonel Pickering, and Jonathan Grunert as Professor Henry Higgins were varying. Barrios-Torres was lovely, especially in her more sprightly moments. Her voice soared through the theater. John Adkison was not quite memorable in this role. The performance lacked the fondness between Pickering and Eliza that permeated the movie version. Grunert seemed a bit pained, an incarnation of Dr. Who racing about forced to say ridiculous things. His arrogance was not believable. Perhaps that’s a good thing? He had a lovely voice, true. But he did not convince me he had grown accustomed to anything new. Nor that he had any idea what My Fair Lady truly meant.
Michael Hegarty as Alfred P. Doolittle was delightful, but the acoustics were not suited to his voice. I relied more on memory muscles than my ears to enjoy his numbers. His character’s leap into the middle class was an interesting contrast with Eliza’s artificial move into ‘the ton’ as the Bridgerton crowd would have us say. Both recognized and lamented pieces of their lives they had shed, but for different reasons. But both made the leap.
Still, Alfred gets the best moments.
A shout out to Maeghin Mueller as Mrs. Pearce, the Higgins housekeeper. Her balance of concern for Eliza’s welfare and what must be an astounding level of energy to keep the household running was powerful. Her fondness for her ward (of sorts) was palpable.
The show runs through Sunday, February 4 and tickets are still available. Whether you are a die-hard fan of the mid-century versions or appreciate a well-constructed modern twist, you’ll enjoy this show.
Where the devil are my hiking boots?
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