My Fair Lady directed by Barlett Sher

 

Robert Stevens, the great drama director at Highland Park High School, was an inspiring teacher, who had a great capacity for encouraging young thespians to achieve the most in their performances. In the late fall of 1962, Mr. Stevens traveled to New York City to select a spring musical and pay the fee for the rights to the show. Miraculously, he was in the office at the moment that the rights to My Fair Lady became available for the first time for post-Broadway production. Although the show was far more money than he had been authorized to spend, Mr. Stevens couldn’t resist---and that is how the thespians at Highland Park High School came to do the first ever off Broadway production of the great Lerner and Loewe classic.

I tried out for the show, but didn’t even make the chorus; only one freshman got to play a maid. I was, however, given the honor of being the page turner for Miss Blume, the pianist and choral teacher at the school, and therefore attended every rehearsal. I learned each line of dialogue and song, which was branded forever into my brain.

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Our production was a triumph for the school and actors, Jack Withum and Judy Schenck, who played the lead roles,  were quite brilliant and convincingly British. I was proud to have been even a small part of theatre history by being associated with that production.

About fifteen years later I was teaching Creative Writing at Bridgewater-Raritan High School-East when it was announced that Rex Harrison was reprising the role of Professor Henry Higgins for a final time. The original version of My Fair Lady, directed by the legendary Moss Hart, had opened on March 15th, 1956 at the Mark Hellinger Theatre. Aside from Harrison, the cast had included Julie Andrews as Eliza Doolittle, Stanley Holloway as Alfred P. Doolittle, and Robert Coote as Colonel Pickering. The show was an immediate hit and ran for several triumphant years.

Now, in 1981 I encouraged my students to join me in seeing a Broadway legend take his final bow as Higgins, and 50 kids came on the trip. However, the aging Harrison was far too old to be a convincing romantic interest for the twenty-something starlet who took the role of Eliza at that time. And Harrison, who talked his songs anyway, was more broken than charming in the role. It was a disappointing outing . . . but we had seen the great Rex Harrison in his most memorable role.

Thus, when my current theatre club announced that our final play of the 2019 season was going to be the new production of My Fair Lady, now being shown at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre at Lincoln Center, I was “Eh,” about it. I knew the show, I knew the lyrics, and I expected it to be even more dated than the 1981 production had been. I wasn’t excited about seeing the show.

How terribly wrong I was! From the first notes of the overture I began to smile, remembering how perfectly the music fit the tale of the flower girl who is transformed into a “lady all genteel like,” by a talented, albeit irascible, confirmed bachelor, Professor Henry Higgins.

Set in 1912 London, the extremely lovely and talented Laura Benanti, took the stage to warm applause. Benanti’s interpretation of Eliza is remarkably contemporary in her world view. Although Higgins, portrayed by the handsome and very tall Harry Hadden-Paton, is the bullying tyrant that he is in earlier versions of the play, Benanti’s Eliza does not cower in front of him. From the onset of the “experiment,” which the generous Colonel Pickering, played by Allan Corduner, has offered to underwrite, Eliza queries the Professor as to “What’s to become of me?” several times in a way that shows that she is capable of thinking ahead should the transformation from grimey flowergirl to duchess be achieved.

And by the play’s conclusion, Higgins makes clear that Eliza has taken over the responsibilities of the household, and has come to depend on her as he would a wife, were he not a confirmed bachelor. Eliza is actually triumphant over Henry.

One of the best things about the production is the snappiness with which the dialogue is delivered. The humor is often droll, particularly Higgins, and his mother’s as well, and the fast pace keeps the audience listening intently. Despite the age of the play, many of the lines are as humorous as ever in the context of the dramatic tension between the characters.

Several scenes are breathtakingly spectacular, as is the stuffy Ascot horse race, Eliza’s second public appearance in the play. She does quite well hobnobbing with the aristocracy dressed in spectacular lilac, silver, and white gowns with the hats on the ladies placed elegantly to frame their beautiful faces. But then, Eliza is not quite “ready for prime time” in her excitement at watching the race. She bounces her bum before the lords and ladies and calls for the horse to “move your bloomin’ arse.”

The highly anticipated showstopper, Alfred P. Doolittle’s moment to be “turned off,” (his impending nuptials) did not disappoint. Doolittle struts up and down the stage with his buddies, dancing and singing to the upbeat tune of “I’m getting married in the morning.” This hilarious scene is as iconic as the tavern scene in Beauty and the Beast, the wedding scene in Fiddler on the Roof, and “Master of the House” in Les Miserables. This version of the high steppin’ bachelor finally joining “middle class morality,” leaves the audience cheering until the final curtain.

Kudos to Christian Dante White, who plays the dorky Freddy Eynsford-Hill, with panache and pathos. Freddy is the hopeless romantic, who has fallen blindly in love, with the half-polished Eliza. He posts himself outside 24A Wimpole Street where Eliza is living with Higgins and the Colonel, and sings, “On the Street Where You Live,” in a stunning voice. White’s portrayal of Freddy is just plain adorable.

The set design, particularly of Higgins’ home, is brilliant. 24A Wimpole Street is on a revolving stage that rotates when the characters are moving from room to room. It is fascinating to watch and very cleverly done, again giving the classic show a modern twist.

When the final curtain fell in the production, my face hurt from smiling, and my spirits were so uplifted. The music of My Fair Lady is timeless; the story continues to enchant. I am so glad that I had the opportunity to enjoy one of the greatest shows to ever grace the Great White Way. This is a production that theatre lovers truly should not miss.