My Fair Lady is part of what has become known as the Golden Age of Musicals, and revivals of it are invariably popular with audiences. Yet, productions of the musical get their bite when they acknowledges their roots in the feminist satire of George Bernard Shaw. After mounting highly successful versions of Monty Python’s Spamalot and Mary Poppins this summer, Moonlight Stage Productions’ My Fair Lady looks toothless by comparison.
Now, this assessment will sound more than a little harsh to those who’ve already seen Steven Glaudini’s highly watchable cast make its way through the story of Eliza Doolittle (Hilary Maiberger) as she moves from selling flowers as a street vendor to wowing the aristocracy at a fancy dress ball. In response, please allow me challenge the notion that what we have here is a rags-to-riches story in the form of a romantic comedy.
To make my point, I need to go back to My Fair Lady’s source, Shaw’s Pygmalion. Written in 1912, as the industrial revolution was changing traditional societal roles and as women were agitating for rights, including the right to vote, Shaw’s tale satirized the (popular at the time) idea that class was designated primarily by speech and all it would take to raise the status of women would be to eliminate the speech patterns that held them back.
Shaw rightly thought such theories to be pure hokum, because even if a “flower girl” could learn to speak like a “lady,” her status with men would still not change. In fact, Pygmalion was a character in Ovid’s Metamorphoses made a sculpture of a perfect woman and then couldn’t stop narcissistically gazing at his own idea of perfection. In his play, Eliza tires of being equivalent to a servant to her mentor, “Professor” Henry Higgins (Hank Stratton) and goes off to marry her suitor, Freddy Eynsford-Hill (Nick Adorno), despite knowing that he has no money, no abilities, and that she would have to support him for the rest of their life together.
Now, a “Golden Age” musical needed some romance, and Shaw wasn’t being cooperative. So, composer Frederick Loewe and lyricist Alan Jay Lerner tried to balance the satire, in songs such as “Why Can’t the English?” and “Hymn to Him” with romantic fantasy such as “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?” and “I Could Have Danced All Night.” They also turned Shaw’s subplot involving the character of Eliza’s father, Alfred (Jamie Torcellini) from one where a Shakespearean clown cleverly discourses on moral philosophy to one where a British Music Hall performer struts his stuff in songs such as “With a Little Bit of Luck” and “Get Me to the Church on Time.”
So, Lerner and Loewe leavened the satire with romantic fantasy and populist charm, but the satire was still there. In order for a production of My Fair Lady to be more than a collection of pretty costumes and pretty songs, the satire needs to bite – and not in the casual way sexism is portrayed in works such as “Mad Men,” which is set in the same period as when My Fair Lady was making a star of Julie Andrews.
Which brings me back to the Moonlight version. On opening night, there were a lot of pretty costumes (rented under the ever-watchful eyes of Roslyn Lehman, Renetta Lloyd and Carlotta Malone) and the pretty songs were made even prettier by musical director Elan McMahan and her 25-piece orchestra. But for me, at least, the satire didn’t bite and the sexism was pretty casual.
Nothing in particular was wrong. Mr. Stratton made for a handsome if egotistical Higgins and he had a nice sense of when to speak and when to sing his lines, a practice pioneered by Rex Harrison, who wasn’t much of a singer (Mr. Stratton, on the other hand, probably could have sung all of the lines, and very well, too). Ms. Maiberger, who showed plenty of spunk as Nellie Forbush in last summer’s production of South Pacific, sang beautifully but I’d characterize her portrayal of Eliza as “earnest.” Likewise, Mr. Torcellini, who made for a hilariously satirical Patsy in Spamalot, settled for “high-spirited” as Alfred. “Earnest” and “high-spirited” only get you part of the way in playing satire. Former artistic director Kathy Brombacher showed the rest of the cast how to do it, though, as Henry’s sharp-tongued mother. [php snippet=1]It is possible that things weren’t quite ready on opening night. The cast was executing Carlos Mendoza’s choreography precisely but with only occasional flair. Ms. McMahan was taking some songs at what I’d call “leisurely” tempos, perhaps in an effort to help keep dance or speech together. If such was the case, it’ll probably only take a few performances before things become more balanced.
Now, none of this may matter to you (and, if that’s the case, thanks for getting this far in the review and hearing me out). If so, you’ll have a perfectly fine time at My Fair Lady, even if you find yourself wondering about the story (I’ll warn you: the musical’s ending isn’t the one Shaw intended). If you’d be happier if they got the satire right, though, I’d wait a little before going.