Book and Lyrics: Alan Jay Lerner
Music: Frederick Loewe
Director: Bartlett Sher
It would not be exaggeration to consider My Fair Lady as an icon of the musical genre.
The story is based on George Bernard Shaw’s play, Pygmalion, about a pompous phonetics professor who aims to pass off a common flower girl as a duchess. With Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe adding some outstanding tunes to a story about class and social mobility, a popular play became a critically and publicly loved musical. And, some 10 years later, with the release of the film, its status as an iconic musical was solidified.
My Fair Lady has not played in the West End for over 20 years. So, it is with much anticipation that the critically acclaimed 2019 Lincoln Centre production signals its return to London. Whilst still set in Edwardian England, this My Fair Lady presents a more contemporary take on the story than previous incarnations.
A colour-conscious approach to casting has Amara Okereke take the lead as the first ever black Eliza Dolittle. This is further enforced by a range of people of colour throughout the cast. And, in a further twist, the ending takes us to the original Pygmalion play rather than the softened conclusion of the original musical.
But the big question is, does it work? And the answer is a wishy-washy yes… and no.
For those familiar with the film, it will take a while to distance that from this production. Okereke’s Eliza is not the glamorous and elegant lady that Audrey Hepburn turns into in the film. Instead, Okereke transforms into an elegant a lady in voice and dress, but her mannerisms and demeanour suggests someone who’s emotionally uncomfortable. This subtlety gives us a more engaging and deeper insight into Eliza’s insecurities and frailties.
This, however, is really the only departure from the original interpretation. The rest follows on as you’d expect, except, it doesn’t really hang together well. Individual scenes work, and some are absolutely delightful. However, the culmination doesn’t give a strong enough narrative.
There are really two main issues with the production. The direction seems somewhat rushed. The emotional bond between Professor Higgins (Harry Hadden-Paton) and Eliza never really materialises. Key moments come and go without any time for their significance to land, and so as the story builds, you’re left feeling that all the passionate responses are overblown.
The other main issue is the venue. The Coliseum is just too big for the show. Michael Yeargan’s glorious sets seem dwarfed by the cavernous stage space. And, for some of the outdoor scenes, when the sets seem to fill the available space, the cast look somewhat lost.
That said, what My Fair Lady is known for is its music and musical scenes. And these too, are a mixed bag. The vocal performance for the whole cast is delightful. Stephen K Amos, is surprisingly musical as Alfred, Eliza’s wayward father. Hadden-Paton is terrific as Higgins, but it’s Okereke singing that’s the star of the show. Her clean and crisp delivery is delightful. However, the 40-strong orchestra seem to struggle to make any real impact in the venue and some of the more up-tempo songs feel rather slow. Wouldn’t It Be Lovely and Get Me To The Church On Time lack the exuberance and joviality that the songs deserve and are further nobbled by laden choreography. Fortunately, I Could Have Danced All Night remains a high point, but it is Sharif Afifi, as the foppish Freddy, who steals the show, musically, with On The Street Where You Live.
There’s much to enjoy in My Fair Lady, including a lovely cameo from Dame Vanessa Redgrave. But whilst many scenes delight, the end resuly doesn’t’ deliver a strong or engaged narrative. For fans of Hepburn you’ll probably end up wishing you’d watched the film again
Runs until 27 August 2022