NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The Lincoln Center Theater national tour of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s “loverly” classic “My Fair Lady” is in handsome residence at Tennessee Performing Arts Center’s Jackson Hall this week. The revival helmed by acclaimed director Bartlett Sher has quite a bit to recommend it (including Michael Yeargan’s set design of colorful compositions and Catherine Zuber’s Tony Award-winning costumes).
Not every choice or moment is perfect – despite what some have written and said, this is no “perfect musical,” in any incarnation, since no human endeavor (including theater criticism) is without flaws. But those imperfections are not so great as to make Lerner and Loewe’s 1956 musical version of George Bernard Shaw’s brilliant “Pygmalion” Edwardian satire (aided or hindered, depending on one’s taste, by the 1938 Gabriel Pascal-produced film adaption of the play Shaw wrote in 1912) anything less than platinum from Broadway’s Golden Age.
How to handle (a slight nod to another Lerner and Loewe show) this “Lady?” In a recent National Public Radio interview Sher (who among other assignments directed a well-received revival of “South Pacific,” for which he won a Tony, and the recent Aaron Sorkin-adapted smash of “To Kill a Mockingbird”) said, “Whenever you do one of these musicals, you have to look at the immediate significance of the time you’re in and why are you doing it right now.” Sher’s take centers on the strength of Eliza’s character, very fitting for this (or any) age.
And who plays the indomitable Eliza in this tour? Shereen Ahmed, who understudied (and eventually played) the part at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre while working as an ensemble member, stars in that role now. She has a beautiful soprano voice that’s just as capable in pursuit of earthier low notes as it is soaring to hit the high ones. And she’s no one’s flower trod in the mud, conveying the inner strength that shines through Eliza whether she’s a Cockney on fire in “Just You Wait” or when she emerges exultant (“I Could Have Danced All Night”) from her run through Higgins’ tortuous educational gauntlet. I’d like to see what she’d make of a role created in a more modern vein (watching her I wondered what she’d make of Dina in “The Band’s Visit,” for instance – Katrina Lenk was stupendous but I think Ahmed could do that and many other roles justice as well).
Laird Mackintosh makes a decent Henry Higgins, and his voice when singing certainly has much more to recommend it than the “talk on the beat” performance Rex Harrison made famous in the original stage production and the 1964 Warner Bros. film – among other roles he’s been the lead character in the unstoppable “Phantom of the Opera” on Broadway, which is after all a sung-through experience. He’s quite good conveying Higgins’ passion for “the majesty and grandeur of the English language,” and the shrillness that accompanies petulant man-child moments (such as in “I’m an Ordinary Man” and “A Hymn to Him”) for his character is strong. But there are moments when I wanted to see the aspects of an imperious martinet more clearly in his characterization – among other things, that makes parts of “The Servants’ Chorus” even more ironically entertaining.
Adam Grupper is always believable and utterly entertaining as Alfred P. Doolittle. Whether he’s romping through “With a Little Bit of Luck,” the “Get Me to the Church on Time” number that spotlights Christopher Gattelli’s ingratiating choreography, or providing his character’s oh-so-original morality musings, Grupper’s energy, delivery, gestures and reactions fit every moment like the well-tailored morning suit rags-to-riches Alfie is ultimately doomed to don.
Other standouts in the ensemble include the engaging characterizations offered by Leslie Alexander as Mrs. Higgins and Wade McCollum as Professor Zoltan Karpathy – both obviously relish their roles and reinforce the notion that we’ll embrace characterizations when the actors thoroughly embrace their characters. There’s solid work from other supporting players, including Kevin Pariseau as Colonel Pickering, Sam Simahk as Freddy Eynsford-Hill (a pleasant rendition of “On the Street Where You Live”) and Gayton Scott as Mrs. Pearce. I also salute the ensemble’s delightfully droll “Ascot Gavotte” among their other moments onstage – the program says that ensemble includes Mark Aldrich, Rajeer Alford, Colin Anderson, Polly Baird, Mark Banik, Kaitlyn Frank, Henry Byalikov, Michael Biren, Shavey Brown, Anne Brummel, Mary Callanan, Jennifer Evans, Nicole Ferguson, Juliane Godfrey, Colleen Grate, Patrick Kerr, Brandon Leffler, Nathalie Marrable, William Michals, Rommel Pierre O’Choa, JoAnna Rhinehart, Sarah Quinn Taylor, Fana Tesfagiorgis, Michael Williams and John T. Wolfe.
Music Director John Bell’s orchestra for the Nashville portion of the tour includes local musicians Amy Helman, Avery Bright, Paul Nelson, Patrick Atwater, Matt Davich, Robby Shankle, Randy Ford, Andrew Witherington, Andrew Golden, Garrett Faccone, Harry Ditzel, Tara Johnson, Bill Huber, Phyllis Sparks, Kelsi Fulton and Paul Ross. It’s tough to bring local and out-of-town musicians together for such a short run, but always worth it – “canned” music never sounds as good as actual playing in the pit.
Let’s also send thanks to associate set designer Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams, lighting designer Donald Holder, sound designer Marc Salzberg. associate director Sari Ketter, associate choreographer Mark Myars, technical supervisor Larry Morley, company manager Jeff Mensch, production stage manager Donavan Dolan and any others connected to this show. It’s easy to forget that there are many gifted hands needed to present such large-scale productions.
(Warning: A finale spoiler follows. If you don’t want to know, stop reading now.)
There’s been plenty of debate about Lerner and Loewe’s ambiguous ending for “My Fair Lady.” As I’ve said in other reviews, I prefer that audience members make up their own minds whether Eliza stays with Higgins, becoming romantically involved with him, or merely comes to say goodbye, before either starting life with Freddy or on her own.
Over to you, Mr. Sher: “Shaw hated the idea that they will ever, ever end up together,” he told NPR. “He was anti rom-com of any kind. He was an incredible feminist, fought hard for all kinds of equality.”
Okay. I prefer that she doesn’t become Higgins’ lover. But as Sher stages it, after the final lines of the musical (and as Loewe’s score crescendos to its triumphant end), Eliza walks to Higgins, puts her hand on his chest, then turns, steps in front of him, and after a brief stop walks off the turntable set leaving Higgins with a rather “Aw, shucks” look on his face as the stage lights dim.
Sher’s staging of the finale isn’t ambiguous, but that would be alright if it wasn’t also an abandonment of the play’s world. I’m sure Sher and his colleagues have an answer, but watching that moment my instant reaction was “Why not leave the way she came?”
The Lincoln Center Theater national tour of “My Fair Lady” continues through Sunday (Feb. 9) at Tennessee Performing Arts Center’s Jackson Hall. For more information on the tour click here; to buy tickets for the Nashville run click here.
The following video offers a look at the cast that’s playing in Nashville: