If a writer is fortunate enough, just once in a lifetime they come across the perfect subject. For Andrew Lloyd Webber, it was Phantom of the Opera. For Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, it was My Fair Lady. They opened the musical on Broadway in 1956 where it soon became the longest running musical of its time. In 1964, the story conquered the world of film and won an Academy Award for Best Picture. In 2002, this London production revival received the Hilton Award for Outstanding Musical Production and with very good reason.
Based on the George Bernard Shaw play Pygmalion, My Fair Lady is the story of what happens when Professor Henry Higgins (Christopher Cazenove) accepts a good-natured challenge from his friend, Col. Hugh Pickering (Walter Charles) after he runs into a young and unrefined flower peddler, Eliza Doolittle (Lisa O’Hare). Pickering bets Higgins that he can’t turn Eliza into a “proper lady” in regards to her speech, dress, and mannerisms. Eliza is eager to take on the challenge so she can climb the social ladder.
Some popular targets of the story include English class, the inequality of English society, and English snobbery. Eliza is introduced as an outsider on two fronts: class and gender. This is clearly demonstrated in the opening scene when bad weather (some nice effects here) drives the poor flower peddlers and market vendors to seek shelter elsewhere so patrons emerging from the opera can seek shelter without being pestered.
The predominant theme of the musical is transformation. It is a humorous delight to watch Eliza struggle her way up the social ladder, especially when she attends a peaceful racing event and screams at her horse to “move your bloody arse.” The most surprising transformation comes from Prof. Higgins, who is presented as a scientist more comfortable viewing other people as specimens and objects of study, not as real people. Though the story has no romance in the traditional sense, his song “I’ve Grown Accustomed To Her Face” speaks of the kind of love that sneaks up on you.
This revived production is a stellar piece of work. Prof. Higgins played by Christopher Cazenove continues the Rex Harrison tradition of speaking rather than singing his musical ruminations. Eliza Doolittle played by Lisa O’Hare manages to carefully improve her English pronunciations over the course of the musical. Eliza’s father Alfred Doolittle played by Tim Jerome wins the crowd’s affection with his broadly comic, anti-establishment antics and commonsense approach to life. He is a tremendous joy to watch, earning long applause after choreographer Matthew Bourne’s raucously stages Stomp-inspired “With a Little Bit of Luck” number complete with its trashcans and multiple set locations.
Overall, the entire choreography was very inventive; as was the set design with its soaring arches serving as the structure for the Higgins’ house, race tracks, ballroom, and mother’s conservatory. The producers of the show made sure this version of the story maintained its momentum. Just in the course of the song “Show Me,” Eliza takes us on a brisk tour of London, starting on Wimpole Street and moving into a jostling Underground car before winding up waving a protest sign with a group of women suffragettes, with the sets moving in and out with such choreographed precision.
Revivals of famous musical productions the like of My Fair Lady will continue to be a priority for 62-year-old producer Cameron Mackintosh. He is the mastermind behind the four biggest musicals in history: “Cats,” “Miss Saigon,” “Phantom of the Opera,” and “Les Miserables.” In fact, he was knighted in 1996 in recognition of his contribution to the British economy. Let’s hope he brings us more elegant revivals like My Fair Lady with its witty script, stellar cast, stunningly beautiful costumes, and one wonderful song after another (including “I Could Have Danced All Night”) to create a musical show that is pleasing to both the eyes and the ear.
My Fair Lady is playing until June 15th at the Orange County Performing Arts Center. Tickets range from $20-$75. Phone 714-556-2787 for more info or visit www.OCPAC.org.