Theatre Reviews

Reclaiming her story: Eliza Doolittle’s My Fair Lady

Anybody who knows me knows that I’ve had a fairly shite couple of weeks. My father passed away unexpectedly just over two weeks ago, which has sort of been a bit of a brain-spin emotionally. In the midst of this, I’ve had the general trials and tribulations of work and irritating parents who think that their children are perfect and I am, of course, the devil incarnate. Fortunately, however, there was a glimmering light in the tunnel, which was visiting New York. I have never been before, despite it being firmly at the top of my bucket list since I was a teenager. In amongst that was seeing Broadway shows, starting with My Fair Lady. How I came into possession of My Fair Lady tickets is additionally special, as it was my father who bought me and my partner tickets to see it for Christmas. Well, technically, I bought them. But it was his idea. And he paid me back. And it’s the last gift I’ll get from him, so that’s a thing.

Our seats were nothing short of perfect. I was slightly worried that being in the Loge (nope, no idea what that means either. In England it would be the Dress Circle, I guess) would be too far away from the action, but I needn’t have worried. The performance was absolutely sublime and on a scale that I, as a Brit, have never witnessed before. It was a thoroughly diverting 2 and a half hours. In fact, it is one of those rare theatre experiences where I have spent significantly more time reading and digesting and thinking about the world within it than I actually spent watching it in the first place.

Grade: A


Set & Lighting

It would be terribly remiss of me not to mention the set design within this production. Michael Yeargan is an absolute genius. The stage at Lincoln Center is firstly entirely ridiculous. It is larger than my childhood home. I thought it was huge just from seeing it without the curtain lifted. Then, when the curtain lifted, I was enthralled by the immense size of the stage. What’s more, the stage is also enhanced by a gargantuan revolve that makes Cameron Mackintosh and Lin-Manuel Miranda weep with envy. Each scene is so carefully thought out with the sets that the stage is never wasted. I was so astonished by the false perspective that these set pieces afford. How do people do that? The façade of Higgins’ house on Wimpole Street was particularly mind boggling. It looks so convincingly real that when the set piece was taken off, my brain took a good 2 minutes to get over it. It constantly made me wonder where on earth all of these set pieces must have been kept backstage, as there was never a moment with a 2 dimensional backdrop or blank stage. The entire stage was used to great effect to create Covent Garden outside the Royal Opera House, with large building set pieces lining the street.

Just a small snippet of the wonderful set of Higgins’ office.

I haven’t even mentioned the best part of the set yet, which is the stunningly beautiful set of Higgin’s house. It looms out of the darkness of the stage in Scene 3 and I literally let out an audible gasp. It was insane. It sits upon the aforementioned colossal revolve, which allows the audience to see into different rooms of Higgin’s house and is especially effective in a delightful montage sequence as Eliza’s lessons continue. The office portion of the set isn’t even on one level. I’m talking desks, sofas, armchairs, fireplace and then a spiral staircase to a library. The doors in this set then lead into Higgin’s foyer, again with staircase. I never got tired of seeing this set loom out of the darkness towards the front of the stage, and I am honestly baffled how My Fair Lady didn’t win a Tony for it last year. Whoever did win must have had an absolutely phenomenal set. Not even the short scenes, which some designers might have put less effort into making look appealing, were captivating and immersive. Mrs Higgin’s conservatory was a brilliant floral affair with windows, while Ascot benefitted from a giant hanging canopy.

The gorgeous Ascot sequence

The setpieces are all complimented by the lighting by Donald Holder. The blue-hued lighting in the street scenes help you feel the cold as the audience, and the entire Ascot section is delightfully stylised as the ensemble take the stage. The gorgeous light blue really enhances the scene. Furthermore, it must be hugely technically challenging to consistently light a moving set. Yet, even when Higgin’s house comes out of the back of the set, the lighting stays constant on the actors within the scene. It was a delightful touch that might perhaps have gone unnoticed because of how flawless it appeared to be, which is a testament to how technically adept and skilful the team is.


Music & Sound

As well as being visually stunning, the audio was equally skilled. One of the things that I immediately noticed was the seeming lack of amplification. Indeed, the entire sound mix by Marc Salzberg was incredibly acoustic-sounding. This is especially impressive when you consider how invisible the microphones are on the actors. I spent a lot of the show wondering where they must be concealed, and on the internet lots of people posit that there are no microphones at all (through lots of internet searches, I discovered literally one picture of Lauren Ambrose where you can see the very end of her microphone peaking through her hair. I’m practically Miss Marple, and you are welcome. I’m still working on where they hide Alfred Doolittle’s microphone, though some people think that there are some microphones hidden around the set, which is intriguing). Furthermore, the beginning of Act 2 features the orchestra on the stage, necessitating further microphones and sound mixing, which was no less stunning than the previous mix in the pit.

Christian Dante White was fantastic as Freddy

I was pretty much entirely unfamiliar with the songs of My Fair Lady, with the exception of I Could Have Danced All Night and Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?. I was sold having watched the production. It’s much less like musicals where you get halfway through a scene and suddenly NOW WE SING ABOUT IT. The music served to enhance the narrative and characters fell into singing naturally during a scene. The vocals were reliably delivered by all cast members, and I was particularly taken by the style of Ascot Gavotte, as well as the delivery of On the Street Where You Live by Christian Dante White (his voice is incredible). As always, Laura Benanti is sublime in her vocal delivery, though I was also fond of Harry Hadden-Patton’s frantic delivery throughout I’m an Ordinary Man, A Hymn to Him and I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face.


The changes

From my (now-extensive) reading around the production, the feminist perspective is something that is being taken very seriously by the production team and Bartlett Sher in particular. It is a message that is conveyed very consistently not just by a few key players, but by the production as a whole. Higgins’ (Harry Hadden-Patton) criticism of women is presented as nothing more than him being churlish and immature. In current times, in fact, his insults (of which there are numerous) are treated as what they are, as opposed to some dismissive joke. When Higgins acknowledges that he doesn’t treat anybody better than Eliza, it is not accepted or thrown off as it might have been in previous productions. Indeed, even Mrs Higgins responds appropriately to her son, saying that he needs to do without Eliza. While previous productions might have sought to condemn Eliza within that partnership, this adaptation clearly condemns Higgins’ actions. The inclusion of Eliza within You Did It makes it plainly obvious that Eliza is being placed on the sidelines as Higgins’ project without being given any credit for this achievement herself – merely as Higgins’ pawn. Without making any changes to the script, Eliza is released from merely being a woman made into a lady by a man, but instead her own ambition is highlighted throughout the musical. She is the one who seeks out Higgins, after all, to start elocution lessons, and she is the one whose confidence grows and finds the strength to leave Higgins when he does not treat her as an equal. As Eliza notes, Higgins is incapable of showing her respect and instead views her as a flower girl regardless of how much she has grown since then. She calls him out on his classist nature against the way that she speaks, and this was even emphasised early on in Why Can’t the English?. Most importantly – and significantly more in line with the ending of the source material Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw – Eliza does not run back to him. The musical bucks the trend of there being a happy ending, nor romanticising this notion of interpreting the meaning of an emotionally stunted man and excusing it. There is no “you’re asking me where your slippers are – that’s what affection is” but instead “nope”. It is the only fitting ending for this production and the way that Higgins is so dramatically caricatured into this woman-hating classist bully. It is so lovely to see how a revival does not feel the need to treat the original as the bible, but instead as a starting point for reinvention and reimagining. As evidence that Mr Henry Higgins is, in fact, the worst to Eliza – and makes her rendition of Without You all the more satisfying – I have contained a delightful list of his insults below.

I’ll make a duchess of this draggle-tailed gutter-snipe

Mr Henry Higgins

You won my bet! You! Presumptuous insect! I won it!

Mr Henry Higgins

She’s so deliciously low! So horribly dirty!

Mr Henry Higgins

Highlights

  • Being there. Getting to see this as my first Broadway show was truly spectacular. Laura Benanti shone as a newly-released heroine who is reclaiming a story that was always rightfully hers.
  • The costumes! Dear God, I didn’t mention the costumes! Catherine Zuber’s creations, accompanied by Tom Watson’s hair and wigs are lush, ornate works of art. What’s more, several of them must be designed for quick-changes and yet the quality of them does not betray this.
  • I’ve seen one critic take the opinion that Higgins might in fact be a closeted gay man, as he is mentioned as a bachelor and might explain his ardent vitriol against Eliza – a woman who he seeks to possess and feels like he ought to be attracted to and yet isn’t. I really like this interpretation of his character. While it potentially might be a reach closeted-wise, I do like the door being opened into examining this character’s psyche, as I believe he is the most interesting character in this adaptation psychologically. It is intriguing as to what makes him act in this particular way towards everyone around him, considering the grounded nature of his mother. He is clearly intensely emotionally constipated, but why? Closeted homosexuality may indeed be the answer to that question.
  • The humour. I haven’t mentioned it here, but there are some wonderful humorous points. The entire Ascot sequence had me guffawing, and the way that it has been directed with the stylised movements and singing is sublime. I can’t get enough of it.
  • Alfred Doolittle (Danny Burstein) was a bundle of chaotic energy who really brought the stage to life when he was there – rendering what might have been skippable soundtrack songs for me into wonderfully entertaining sections.

Them as pinched it, done her in.

Eliza Doolittle
Laura Benanti portraying Eliza Doolitle reclaiming a story that was rightfully hers.

MRS. HIGGINS: Hasn’t it suddenly turned chilly?
LADY EYNSFORD-HILL: I do hope we won’t have any unseasonable cold spells. They bring on so much influenza and the whole of our family is susceptible to it.
ELIZA: (In a refined manner throughout) My aunt died of influenza, so they said. But it is my belief that they done the old woman in.
LADY BOXINGTON: “Done her in?”
ELIZA: Yes, Lord love you. Why should she die of influenza when she’d come through diphtheria right enough the year before? Fairly blue with it, she was. They all thought she was dead, but my father, he kept ladling gin down her throat. (Professor Higgins groans) Then she come to so soon, she bit the bowl off the spoon.
LADY EYNSFORD-HILL: Dear me!
ELIZA: Now what call would a woman with that strength in her have to die of influenza? And what become of her new straw hat that should have come to me? Somebody pinched it, and what I say is, them as pinched it, done her in.
LORD BOXINGTON: “Done her in?” “Done her in” did you say?
LADY BOXINGTON: Whatever does it mean?
PROFESSOR HIGGINS: Ah, that’s the new small talk. “To do somebody in” means to kill them.
LADY EYNSFORD-HILL: But you surely don’t believe your aunt was killed?
ELIZA: Do I not! Them she lived with would have killed her for a hat pin, let alone a hat.
LADY EYNSFORD-HILL: But it can’t have been right for your father to pour sprits down her throat like that. It might have killed her!
ELIZA: Not her. Gin was mother’s milk to her. Besides, he poured so much down his own throat he knew the good of it.

The Ascot sequence.

The smallprint

  • Directed by: Bartlett Sher
  • Book and lyrics: Alan Jay Lerner
  • Music: Frederick Loewe
  • Sets: Michael Yeargan
  • Costumes: Catherine Zuber
  • Lighting: Donald Holder
  • Sound: Marc Salzberg
  • Starring: Laura Benanti as Eliza Doolittle, Harry Hadden-Paton as Professor Henry Higgins, Danny Burstein as Alfred P. Doolittle, Rosemary Harris as Mrs. Higgins, Allan Corduner as Colonel Pickering, Christian Dante White as Freddy Eynsford-Hill and Linda Mugleston as Mrs. Pearce.
  • Official tickets here.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: