Let me lay your worries to rest: director Bartlett Sher’s production of My Fair Lady finds a way to stage the notoriously troublesome musical with a sense of where we are today. It is still Lerner and Loewe’s classic but how we read the relationship and battles between Eliza Dolittle and Henry Higgins throughout feels conscious of the moment we are in–this means less starry-eyed romance in the face of abuse and more self-awareness. So often revivals can seem woefully out of touch and even engorged with their own nostalgia (cough, cough—Carousel). This Lincoln Center production is elegantly wrought but brings necessary contemporary perspective to allow it to be both a product of the past and a work in conversation with the present.
The filthy and downtrodden Eliza Dolittle (Lauren Ambrose) sells flowers outside Covent Garden. She is discovered there by Professor Henry Higgins (Harry Hadden-Paton) and his linguistics pal Colonel Pickering (Allan Corduner). Upon hearing Eliza’s “curbstone English,” Higgins glibly suggests he could turn her into a proper shop girl by simply changing her accent. She shows up on Higgins’ doorstep the next day offering to pay for such lessons for herself. Higgins wagers with Pickering that he could pass Eliza off as a duchess at the embassy ball and the two men set to work on molding their new charge.
Sher and Lauren Ambrose shine a light on the complexities of this woman who is betwixt and between worlds. Eliza is terrified of living on the streets and losing her foothold of respectability which she fiercely clings to (“I’m a good girl I am.”). However, the post-education Eliza Doolittle is full of desperation of another sort. She suddenly comprehends the economic and social disaster she’s inadvertently been led to the slaughter for as a “lady.” She is not meant for self-sufficiency but expected to groom herself for dependence on a man. She avoided selling herself on the streets and yet now that is her only option through marriage to a gentleman. With her transformation, she loses her community and sense of belonging. It’s any wonder she cries out to Higgins, “What will become of me?” The musical still bears the Shavian bones of Pygmalion in this hero.
Eliza volunteers for this makeover experiment because she wants something more for herself. As an itinerant flower girl who must earn enough each day to not lose her lodgings (places that are so cold she’s never taken off all her clothes for bedtime), her singing about wanting to find a stable place “far away from the cold night air with one enormous chair” is no small thing in her mind. Ambrose gets us to feel these high stakes and the gap between Eliza’s life of deprivation and the wealthy, experimenting bachelors who take their privilege for granted.
Ambrose makes great use of even the smallest moments. Higgins gives Eliza her first ever handkerchief. Ambrose rubs it gingerly on her face like she’s never felt anything as soft. When she moves in with Higgins, she calls back to her old flat for her most prized possessions—a bird cage (sans bird) and a hand fan. When she’s reunited with these items we see how she bears such affection for these trinkets. But we also can see she has an inner sensitivity and refinement that does not come from her lessons but that was always there.
While she’s surrounded by brutish men who have dominated, bullied, educated, abandoned, and beat her, Lerner and Loewe (thanks to George Bernard Shaw) still give her a voice. This production leans further into that. Beyond the text here, she is feisty and spiky. She ends each of Higgins’ lessons with a small rebellion which pushes back against a singular docile or romance narrative. She may have a clean face and improving elocution but her street-borne spirit is not wholly lost, until it is suspended for a brief time under Higgins’ spell.
Higgins’ passion for her improvement and learning burns brightly. She tries to be what he wants her to be. Eliza has been so long invisible to everyone around her, can we blame her for bending towards this bit of sunlight once she feels the warmth of this attention?
It may work on her but not us. We don’t outright hate Higgins. His grotesque cruelty to her is not easily forgiven nor does this production try to convince us it should be. His defense of his behavior with the excuse of equal-opportunity boorishness has a ring of truth to it but that’s not enough to smooth over what he’s done and said. He’s not all good or all bad but more importantly we don’t care about his outcome. I’d like to think the audience is laughing at Higgins and his sexist ideas of gender politics throughout. But if they aren’t, at least Sher gives me the space to have that reaction.
Sher has Eliza physically break out of the defined space of Higgins house at pointed moments. She is in rooms where she is ignored, forgotten, and dismissed. We are constantly reminded she is not smoothly integrated into this new world and in fact remains apart from it. We cannot want this to be her future.
Sher keeps that distance at the forefront of the production so we are rooting for Eliza’s success (on whatever terms she can makes for herself) rather than her acquiescence. As she teeters at Ascot in a stylish dress or as she takes to the dance floor at the embassy ball, we are there for her. Even Higgins concedes, “Eliza can do anything.” We want to see her try.
Eventually, Higgins’ spell over Eliza shatters and she fights her way back to herself. Most importantly, Sher doesn’t derail her from that path even if that has been the more traditional reading of this musical. The choices he makes for the ending feel authentic to the material and appropriate for this woman who is far too bright and too self-knowledgeable to backtrack.
Ambrose, who is making her Broadway musical debut, has a lovely soprano. Her acting can come across as a little overwrought in certain scenes with her face contorting beyond the exaggerated requirements of Eliza’s diction. But when she must act through song she is remarkably probing. Even more, when she is not speaking, her reactions make Eliza an active, evolving presence and her delicate character work is clear. Her Eliza is harder to forget as the many loud men in her life try to pull our focus.
Hadden-Paton straddles the line between nearly but not charming and exasperating fool. He makes you believe he could love Eliza in his limited, backwards way but we’re not craving that. We can tolerate him but we never embrace him and this standoffishness helps us fight for Eliza to see the light.
Jordan Donica is an ardent and sweet Freddy Eynsford-Hill and his “On the Street Where You Live” made me cry (it is my musical theater kryptonite). In addition, it was nice to see the generally diverse production embrace color conscious casting for the Eynsford-Hill family.
As for the design, there is a breathtaking moment of dramatic silhouette for the Ascot races. Costumes rather than set define it. I almost wished there was more representational design like this. Otherwise it is quite literal. With quick location changes, Sher employs flat-style street scenes placed by hand which look cartoonish. But no expense was spared on Higgins large home which rotates on a turntable giving us a look into multiple rooms. The sumptuous costumes on the entire cast situate us in time. But before we get lost in the fantasy of fabulous gowns (though they are), suffragettes march through one of the street scenes. We’re reminded exactly where we are standing–then and now–and what fights are on the horizon. It’s no question that this production does too.