Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s musical My Fair Lady—at the Dolby Theatre through Oct. 31—is shockingly delightful and relevant, especially considering how closely it follows George Bernard Shaw’s 1912 play, Pygmalion, itself based on an ancient Greek myth. With excellent singing and inventive staging, Director Bartlett Sher’s well-paced touring production not only entertains throughout its three-hour run time, but hits gender and power notes that resonate today.
Shereen Ahmed’s strong, melodious singing as impoverished but spunky London flower-seller Eliza Doolittle anchors the production. She is complemented well by Laird Mackintosh as the arrogantly astute Professor Henry Higgins, who makes a bet with sidekick Colonel Pickering (Kevin Pariseau) that he can refine Eliza’s Cockney accent into that of a high-class “lady.”
A virtual prisoner in Higgins’s home with an ample waitstaff headed by the competent Mrs. Pearce (Gayton Scott), practicing “proper” vowel sounds (“The Rain in Spain”), Eliza slowly and hilariously masters a new way of speaking. Her “trial run” debut is at the Ascot races, where upper-crust society—dressed like a delicious-looking but sterile wedding cake in embellished off-whites by costumer Catherine Zuber—mingle and scrutinize each other.
The upper class’s stiffly choreographed (Christopher Gattelli) ensemble number (“Ascot Gavotte”) is balanced in the second half by a free-wheeling, gender-bending cabaret, “Get Me to the Church on Time,” as Eliza’s gruff but sly father Alfred (a likable Adam Grupper) is about to get hitched. Other songs are similarly dynamic, such as Eliza’s “Just You Wait,” during which she glides through doorways and up and down stairs on the revolving set of Higgins’s home, ingeniously designed by Michael Yeargan.
All the singing is top notch—including by supporting cast such as Freddy (Sam Simahk), Eliza’s over-the-moon in love suitor—accompanied by a talented orchestra conducted by John Bell. This production, originally performed at New York’s Lincoln Center Theater, also excels in its technical aspects, including sets (Yeargan) featuring tree-lined streets in addition to the revolving mansion, lighting (Donald Holder), sound (Marc Salzberg) and costumes (Zuber). Eliza’s elegant sparkly gown with red overcoat during an ambassador’s ball—the “test” of whether Higgins wins his bet of passing her off as high society—is show-stopping.
But it is after this pivotal event that Higgins’s limitations as a man—and human being—become apparent not only to Eliza but his own mother (Leslie Alexander). Higgins can discern every nuance in spoken language, but is he able to hear the unspoken words of the human heart? And not just any human, but the one he has helped transform into a person who may no longer have a place in the world, a plight he seems incapable of understanding or feeling due to his own privileged class and gender.
It is no secret that women here and now earn a fraction of what men earn for comparable jobs in the workplace. Women bear the brunt of raising children with no socially sanctioned economic backing like subsidized childcare while being increasingly limited in their choice of whether to bring a child into a world that refuses to support them after birth. Women carry the burden of proof when speaking out against domestic violence, harassment, assault and rape, their stories often not given enough credence to prevent men from ascending into corporate, judicial or even presidential positions of power.
Perhaps we have not made as much progress as we’d like to believe in the more than 100 years since Shaw penned his perceptive work. This playful musical adaptation may help us feel what it’s like to be Eliza—an impoverished woman, patronizingly lured by the promise of chocolates into an experimental life created for her by a man who takes full credit for her success and behavior while ignoring her humanity.
Though in retrospect it may hit a nerve when it comes to gender and power, this production of My Fair Lady is nonetheless so beautiful, engaging and transporting, you would be remiss to miss it. To borrow a lyrical word from one of its songs (and the name of the Dolby’s quite refreshing theme cocktail), this well-paced musical is absolutely “loverly”—never dated, always amusing, vibrantly vocalized and energetically uplifting.
My Fair Lady continues at the Dolby Theatre, 6801 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles, through Oct. 31, with shows Tuesdays through Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays 2pm and 8pm, and Sundays 1pm and 6:30pm. Ticket prices range from $30 to $135. For tickets and information, visit Dolbytheatre.com. The Dolby Theatre requires proof of vaccination and masks during the performance.