Featured Post

Four Decades Along the Rainbow Road

Wednesday, January 11, 2023

Classic ‘My Fair Lady’ at the Hippodrome

Madeline Powell as Eliza Doolittle

My Fair Lady was my first Broadway LP album, and I must have played it a hundred times, loving each song like it was the best of the best. The musical presents an enjoyable storyline woven together by a lush score, wonderful lyrics, lavish costumes and eye-pleasing sets. 

As part of Broadway’s Golden Age of musicals, it’s been a wildly popular and successful 6-time Tony Award winning show for over 60 years played throughout the world in dozens of languages. The 1964 film adaptation was a multiple Oscar winner and box office smash.  In short, My Fair Lady is a classic and has been appropriately dubbed by many as “the perfect musical.” It has been and continues to be my favorite musical of all time.

The Lincoln Center Theater revival of this masterpiece directed by Bartlett Sher that is now touring nationally is a welcome addition to the Hippodrome Theatre’s 2022-23 Season. As has generally been the case, the touring shows at the Hippodrome have been stellar, polished productions, so it was not a stretch for me to have lofty expectations about Lerner & Loewe's My Fair Lady given its pedigree and the theatre’s history of excellence.

At its core, the production stayed true to the original, and that is a major sigh of relief. After all, there is no need to mess with success, and Sher did little in the way of tinkering. This is evident during the uncomfortably obvious sexist scenes and songs that were acceptable in the 1950’s but are offensive by contemporary sensibilities.

The music by Frederick Loewe and the utterly outstanding lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner are the centerpiece of My Fair Lady.  Lerner’s book was based on George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion.  The talented leads and the orchestra led by director David Andrews Rogers are excellent in delivering the iconic songs.

Nonetheless, the opening night production experienced some technical issues, which are fixable and most likely won’t be evident in future presentations. Part of the set would not move forward downstage resulting in an unusual interruption of the presentation that lasted for about 10 minutes. In addition, there were some mic/sound problems in the first act that need to be addressed.

The story centers on a young Cockney flower girl, Eliza Doolittle, literally plucked from the streets of London during the early part of the 20th century by erudite phoneticist Professor Henry Higgins in a seemingly uphill battle to turn her speech patterns around and ultimately make her pass as a lady as part of a bet with a colleague Colonel Pickering.  Their relationship takes on an interesting dynamic as the show proceeds, and whether or not Eliza and Higgins turn their love-hate relationship into love is ambiguous at best.  All this transpires with the clear division, values and conflicts between the upper and lower classes of London as the backdrop.

"At its core, the production stayed true to the original..."

With most musicals, if there are three or four songs that are memorable, that would be considered a success.  In My Fair Lady’s first-rate catalogue there are well over a dozen such songs, each distinct and blessed with wonderful melodies and clever lyrics.  The songs don’t just serve as filler or interruptions; they move the action forward and maintain an integral place in the story. Lerner’s lyrics are as good as it gets in musical theatre, and many leave a smile as the numbers are performed.

The iconic “I Could Have Danced All Night,” “The Rain in Spain,” “On the Street Where You Live,” and “Get Me to the Church on Time” are favorites for sure.  But even the others, such as “I’m an Ordinary Man,” “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly,” “You Did It,” and “Show Me” are also examples of tuneful numbers that always please.

Madeline Powell plays the part of the ornery Eliza Doolittle with sass and class.  Possessing a soaring soprano voice, Ms. Powell delivers excellent renditions of “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly,” “The Rain in Spain,” and “Show Me,” and she truly triumphs in the big number “I Could Have Danced All Night.”  Ms. Powell is outstanding as a vocalist, and her acting is spot on as Eliza with all the voice inflections, facial expressions and body language required by the part. Her character evolves from being a meek, angry street woman to a proud person who demands self-respect and kindness.

As the pompous, chauvinistic bully Professor Henry Higgins, Jonathan Grunert hit it out of the park aided by a superbly strong speaking voice—perfect for theatre.  His onstage chemistry with Ms. Powell is fantastic and essential for the production to be successful.

Jonathan Grunert, Madeline Powell and John Adkison

Solid all around and executing his songs with the appropriate amount of flair, Mr. Grunert, a younger version of previous Henry Higginses, is a man in perpetual motion in virtually every scene.  It’s not that he is dancing, but his precise high energy movements on the stage, especially during his vocal performances, are well choreographed and executed.

During the course of “I’m an Ordinary Man”,  however, I would have liked Mr. Grunert to emphasize the word “BUT” as was done in the original by Rex Harrison for a dramatic transition.  “BUT, let a woman in your life and your serenity is through…” It would have been a good touch to deliver it in that manner.

Another quibble is that in his zeal to demonstrate his utter exasperation with Eliza and reinforce his dominance over her, Mr. Grunert’s dialogue is occasionally rushed, rather than letting each word sink in. Regardless, he was well cast for the role.

Higgins’ sidekick is Colonel Pickering, also a phoneticist, who wagered that Higgins could not turn the disheveled Eliza into a lady to pass as such in London’s upper crust society.  He lost the bet but is pleased to see the results.

John Adkison ably plays Colonel Pickering authoritatively trying to rein in Higgins’ impatience and coldness towards Eliza.

In a comedic role, Eliza’s father, Alfred P. Doolittle, is an unmarried working-class boozer. Michael Hegarty plays the part to the hilt with a muscular voice and excellent dancing. He allows Higgins to house Eliza in exchange for five pounds and is always eager to find money.  “With a Little Bit of Luck” and the show-stopping, a little bawdy number “Get Me to the Church on Time” are his featured songs, and he along with the energetic ensemble under the choreography by Christopher Gattelli, perform these numbers exceptionally.

Nathan Haltiwanger plays Freddy Eynsford-Hill, Eliza’s suitor with whom she has little interest.  His one number, “On the Street Where You Live” (and reprise) was performed very well with a rich tenor voice and was an audience pleaser.

Notable performances are also turned in by Madeline Brennan as Higgins’ stern housekeeper, Mrs. Pearce, as well as Becky Saunders who plays the role of the socialite Mrs. Higgins, mother of Henry, who clearly has issues with her son.  The remainder of the cast and ensemble support the leads with great talent and energy.

There are numerous scene changes throughout the show, and Michael Yeargan’s set design is a combination of a fixed set, such as Higgins’ lavish study, and moveable set pieces. 

That study is the venue for many of the musical numbers features wood paneling, a ceiling high window, a couple of desks and chairs, and an ornate wooden spiral staircase. As noted earlier, the set was unable to move downstage in the first act necessitating some repairs.

The staging and hence the pacing of the production were hampered by large set pieces including three street lamps and other objects. Scene changes were not executed as fast as we’ve seen in other touring productions.

Nonetheless, the period costumes designed by Catherine Zuber are superb. They are manifested in the Ascot scene where the upper crust women wore lavish gowns and oversized feathered hats.

Despite sound snafus in the early part of the show, designers Marc Salzberg and Beth Lake did a fine job. In particular, the sound of horses racing during the Ascot event sweeping through the theater was effectively executed.

Overall, this version of My Fair Lady scores high marks for not only staying true to the classic work but also for enabling a talented, energetic cast to do justice to this magnificent musical. 

With a little bit of luck, with a little bit of luck, you should find the time to see this show.

Running time. Two hours and 55 minutes with an intermission.

My Fair Lady runs through January 15 at the Hippodrome Theatre at the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center, 12 N. Eutaw St, Baltimore, MD 21201.  For tickets, call Ticketmaster at 800-982-ARTS or visit Ticketmaster or the Hippodrome.

Photos: Jeremy Daniel