My Fair Lady at the Shaw Festival

When we were ordering our Shaw Festival tickets last winter, it occurred to us that our bodacious granddaughter might well enjoy seeing this year’s production of My Fair Lady. We were not mistaken. The eight-year-old was riveted by the opening ballet-like scene in Covent Garden, thrilled to the waltzing at the Embassy Ball, and laughed out loud at Henry Higgins’s rant near the play’s end, “Why Can’t a Woman Be More Like a Man” (which, she said, was her favorite song from the show).

“It’s the best play I’ve ever seen,” she said before she fell asleep in the car on our way back to Rochester, and “and also the longest!” She wants to come back to Niagara-on-the-Lake next summer and see it again.

She and her eight-year-old cousin are the best of friends, so we brought him too. He was not nearly as riveted as his girl cousin by the singing, dancing, and extravagant costuming, but he bore it manfully. What he liked best was the part where Eliza shied Henry Higgins’s slippers at him.

The kids were fascinated by the scene changes. Having no preconceptions, they didn’t realize that the modernistic set designs were a bit different from what veteran Shaw play-goers might have expected Covent Garden, 27A Wimpole Street, and Ascot to look like. (We liked this show’s visuals a lot; it’s a gorgeous production.) Even though it was late when the curtain fell, we lingered around the orchestra pit anyway so the kids could see the musicians. We explained to them that the conductor, Paul Sportelli, had been conducting the singers on the stage too even though they never seemed to be paying attention to him.

Benedict Campbell as Henry Higgins and Deborah Hay as Eliza Doolittle

Taking the kids to the theater was distracting, not because of any misbehavior on their part, but because we couldn’t help watching them to see how they were reacting to the show. Some of it, we know, went over their heads, but they didn’t seem to mind. We wondered afterward how much we might have missed ourselves if we hadn’t known the play so very well; telling the story of this familiar play may not have been the director’s highest priority. But the show moved along smartly, the songs gave us great joy, and the extended dance sequences for the Embassy Ball and “Get Me to the Church on Time” were exhilarating. And Mark Uhre, who sings “On the Street Where You Live,” has a superb tenor voice. All told, this is a glorious production.

The cast took fresh approaches to these familiar roles; Benedict Campbell (as Henry Higgins) and Deborah Hay (as Eliza Doolittle) are nothing like Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn. Here Eliza is earthy and self-reliant, while Mr. Campbell’s bespectacled Higgins (we were reminded a little of Woody Allen!) is prissy, selfish, and mildly effeminate. It was easy to see why Higgins, a man short on patience, forbearance, and generosity, had never fallen into matrimony. Patrick Galligan brings nervous energy to the role of Colonel Pickering and plays it without the usual stuffiness. The characters were undoubtedly English, but we left the theater thinking that we had seen a decidedly American My Fair Lady.

At the Ascot races: Mark Uhre as Freddy Eynsford-Hill, Gabrielle Jones as Mrs Eynsford-Hill, Patrick Galligan as Colonel Pickering, and Sharry Flett as Mrs Higgins

Both My Fair Lady and the Shaw Festival’s other 2011 extravaganza, The Admirable Crichton, involve the theme of romantic attraction across social lines; while The Admirable Crichton considers the possible mating of a butler with a noble lady, My Fair Lady posits a match between a wealthy, educated English gentleman (Henry Higgins) and a penniless Cockney girl. (See Emsworth’s appreciative thoughts about The Admirable Crichton at this post). (The sets for both shows were both designed by Ken MacDonald; seeing them both within a couple of weeks made us really appreciate his talent.)

But while J. M. Barrie had no socio-political agenda in writing The Admirable Crichton (again, see our thoughts about that at this post), one can’t say the same about Bernard Shaw’s agenda in writing Pygmalion, on which My Fair Lady is based. Shaw had a low opinion of traditional marriage, and when we heard Higgins propose to Eliza a relationship in which she would stay with him only as long as it suited her, and vice versa, we heard the propagandizing voice of Shaw himself. We’re glad that went over the heads of the eight-year-olds.

On the same theme, by the way, is the hilarious story with which P. G. Wodehouse opened his 1923 masterpiece The Inimitable Jeeves, in which Jeeves has Bingo Little’s wealthy uncle supplied with popular romance fiction (Only a Shop Girl and All for Love) to put him in a frame of mind to propose marriage to his cook.

In the program, director Molly Smith asserts that there are “only a few Gold Standard Musicals,” which she identifies as South Pacific, West Side Story, Gypsy, and My Fair Lady. We would agree that there are only a few musicals at the very top, but can’t agree with her nominees. West Side Story and My Fair Lady are surely golden, but we would have topped off the list with Show Boat, Oklahoma, and Fiddler on the Roof.

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