My Fair Lady – Bord Gáis Energy Theatre – Review
by Brian Merriman
06 – 30 October 2022
My Fair Lady is ‘luverly’…every ‘blooming’ moment on stage is a treat! This rich production at the BGE theatre defies the brief of a touring production on so many levels. It has a stellar cast, a lavish design and staging and it reinvigorates a play of its time for a new audience. There is so much to note.
It always bemuses me that Lerner and Loewe get away with saying ‘My Fair Lady’ is adapted from ‘Pygmalion’ by Dubliner, George Bernard Shaw. It is his plot, characters and so many of his lines are used, at the minimum, a co-credit is the most truthful credit. That is not to say that Lerner and Loewe haven’t put their unique and glorious stamp on the work which has long affected productions of ‘Pygmalion’ as impatient audiences long for a song!
The boorish views and utter male chauvinism of the original scenario are likely (and wisely) to offend in modern times. The handling of the tension in status and perception of the two main characters is refreshingly refined and stays faithful to the original while acknowledging the flaws. In this, the interpretation of Henry Higgins is a triumph! Bartlett Sher (Director) and the stunning Michael D Xavier achieve the impossible. They retain the fidelity of the part, accept the challenge of the iconic presence of Rex Harrison’s original and yet breathe such new air into this casting and interpretation that Higgins shines again in a new and more understandable light, to a more egalitarian audience. It is such a surprise and a joy to behold.
The casting of Michael D Xavier is a master stroke in retuning this iconic role to modern sensibilities. He is a first-class interpreter of language and character. He is younger than traditionally cast, and therefore the scope of his interaction with Eliza is more plausible. His energy and openness are frenetically engaging and though not always agreeing with his rants, his vulnerability radiates to grip your empathy. His Cleese-like comic delivery, his diction and his unabashed chauvinistic delivery while actually singing the songs, are a powerhouse combination of intelligent artistry. He reminds us that as long as there are real actors about, there are no final limits to the range and impact of any iconic well-written role.
I can now ‘not see’ any other actor become his match, in this fresh and well-positioned interpretation of male chauvinism, in a time when ‘votes for women’ wobbled the very pillars on which male superiority rested so comfortably. Harrison must be raising an eyebrow, hopefully of delight!
The only negative note I have is the programme presentation of the star that is ‘Eliza’, in the vocally splendid performance by Charlotte Kennedy. She is the heartbeat of this quality production and stands tall beside predecessors like Julie Andrews and Audrey Hepburn. Her derisory and tiny biography in the programme squeezed in between more experienced actors could only have been penned by the original Higgins on the night of his triumph after the Embassy Ball! It is an insult and denigrates the huge talent, flawless contribution and major impact of Ms Kennedy who demonstrated at every moment, that she is (more) the equal to everyone on this talented stage. Her comic timing, wide dramatic range and joyous vocal agility are the centre-piece of this almost three-hour masterpiece. She never misses a beat, has boundless energy is every inch the intellectual match and star this iconic role demands. ‘Eliza’ is her first full role – it will not be her last. Can somebody give her a dignified presence in the programme acknowledging this production’s debt to and luck in finding such a mature and quality presence in casting Ms Kennedy?
Equally, another young star, Tom Liggins (Freddy Eynsford Hill)’s biography endures the degrading brief bio, undermining his considerable contribution in this lightly comedic, well-sung, juvenile role. The programme editor should be next on Eliza’s list for ‘off with yer head’! This smacks of professional snobbery and is very poor behaviour indeed for a professional production.
So often today with our ’sound bite’ capacity, things are edited to fit our new shorter attention span and we are lured in to attend the play by TV names. ‘My Fair Lady’ is way more than this marketing ploy – it is quality musical theatre. It is real theatre and this Lincoln Center Theatre Production reminds us that there is no limitation on our attention span when drinking in quality work. The show runs almost three hours with an interval and it whizzed by as the quality of each production element shone, enchanted and amazed. The sumptuous and multi-functional sets (the genius of Michael Yeargan) allowed for such animated staging in the glorious and Beaton-challenging costumes of Catherine Zuber. ‘My Fair Lady’ has many solo numbers, but with a four-roomed tour of 27A Wimpole Street possible in staging one song, this production brought a whole new tempo and potential to the traditional confines of a Victorian London terraced house.
TV stars John Middleton (Pickering) and Adam Woodyatt (Alfred Doolittle) are also credited. I may have missed the announcement, but I believe I was privileged to see John Stacey deputise for Mr Middleton. This is another example of how underrated a ‘swing’ can be. For this company to have the good fortune to have such a talent at its last-minute disposal, who can stand as an equal beside the glittering Xavier and Kennedy is no surprise. His ‘Pickering’ was a perfect study and a lovely humane contrast when this Higgins frequently loses control! Woodyatt was charming and radiated a stage innocence at times, especially when surrounded by a whirling chorus in choreographer Christopher Gattelli’s lively dance numbers. The Burlesque theme to ‘I’m Getting Married’ was a great innovation equalled by the poise and elegance of the ‘Ascot Gavotte’. Woodyatt was well supported and guided throughout these routines by an expert cast. He resonated with charm with the audience.
Lesley Garret as ‘Mrs Pearce’ is another example of quality theatre. We did long for a song though. A headline act in her own right, she took on this supporting role with the precision and professionalism it deserved. She did draw every ounce out of every letter of her lines with a commanding stage presence and great disciplined timing, as required to be head of the household staff – and what a talented staff ensemble they were! One moment a butler is the Crown Prince (Jordan Crouch) at a ball in splendid costume and in seconds (like Eliza) he is back working as a footman for a living.
The costume changing, set changing and multi-talented playing of this diverse ensemble guaranteed the quality of this production and how the almost three hours just flew by, leaving us all yearning for more…and more quality theatre on a tour of this calibre. ‘I could have watched …all night’!
So, do they all live happily ever after? Shaw was deliberately ambiguous about this in ‘Pygmalion’. Director Sher steers very close to the wind and teases at the end. He exploits the potential for resolution allowed for by the closer in age casting of Higgins and Eliza…but it rightly remains unanswered, as it should be, because as always in ‘My Fair Lady’…Mr Shaw has the last word.