my fair lady poster feature lincoln center theater

So Loverly – My Fair Lady in NYC

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Thanks to a friend, more organized than I, who purchased the tickets, three of us went to see My Fair Lady at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre. After taking the train in from Grand Central, catching a taxi in the rain over to Lincoln Center, having a quick snack in a café, and splashing through puddles to get to the venue, we were ready for a treat. (A quick note: this is a Broadway show, although unlike most, it is non-commercial, and the theater is located up on 65th Street, not between 41st and 54th like the rest of them. Broadway, in the theater world, is determined not so much by geographic location, but by the union contracts which apply concerning the size of the venue, the pay for the actors, and so forth. Most of them are not actually on Broadway, the street, although they cluster around it. It’s rather confusing for the out-of-towner.  But do figure it out and go see this show!)

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I seem to be having bad luck these days seeing the big name actors…I recently missed Tony Shalhoub in The Band’s Visit, and this time, we missed seeing Lauren Ambrose play Eliza Doolittle. (Rather a shame, as she’s been nominated for a Tony.) Kerstin Anderson, her understudy, was excellent, however, so I cannot in any fairness complain about Ms. Ambrose’s absence. It’s a hard role, physically demanding, comedic and dramatic in turns, and performed in two different accents, while, all along, competing with the memories of Julie Andrews and Audrey Hepburn. She was a joy to watch.

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It’s a lush production. It’s such a pleasure to have a full orchestra…there’s a feeling of luxury and abundance from the moment they start to play, before the curtain even rises. (They even make it on stage…the orchestra gets its moment during the Embassy ballroom scene in the second act, along with some lovely dancing.)

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The set is terrific, too. It’s somewhat minimalistic when it comes to Covent Garden and the flower market, where Eliza and Professor Higgins meet, but Professor Higgins’ home is phenomenal. It makes for a nice contrast between his comfortable  townhouse, with servants bustling around, an enormous library, a spiral staircase, and an indoor washroom, and Eliza’s circumstances, wishing longingly for a “room somewhere” and “warm face, warm hands, warm feet.”

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And the plot…rather famously infuriating to George Bernard Shaw, who resented the implied romance and happy ending to this Lerner & Loewe adaption from his play Pygmalion, most people know it, either through this musical, or the 1964 movie version. On a whim and a bet, Higgins, the professor of phonetics, takes on Eliza, a grubby and impoverished flower seller, as a pupil, vowing to transform her into a lady, and boasting that he could pass her off as a duchess in six months.

He does so. And in the process (as in the original Pygmalion myth, which had a sculptor’s work come to life as a beautiful woman), he, without even realizing it, falls in love.

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It’s a great story, full of comedy. There’s the fish out of water bit when Eliza attempts to make small talk at Ascot, and falls into Cockney slang. There she wins the heart of the somewhat dim Freddy, who becomes her suitor and subsequently spends his time mooning around outside of her residence. (Jordan Donica does a gorgeous job with “On the Street Where You Live.”)

Diana Rigg is excellent as Higgins’ mother; she’s a grand dame through and through, clearly as intelligent as her son, and considerably kinder and more self-aware.

And Eliza’s father, Alfred P. Doolittle, played by Norbert Leo Butz, is also quite good. The undeserving poor man (“a common dustman”) who finds himself unexpectedly rich (thanks to some offhand flippancy by Higgins which caused an American millionaire to leave him his money), and involuntarily pulled into middle class respectability, he pulls off the showstopper, “Get Me to the Church on Time,” in a riotous number, complete with cancan dancers.

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It must be hard to play Higgins in 2018; the gender and class politics of Edwardian England that allow him to be such a bully and tyrant to Eliza make it very hard to like him much today. Harry Hadden-Paton handles this difficult balancing act pretty well. Higgins is inconsiderate and blustery when not being condescending, emotionally stunted, and completely oblivious to his own privilege and the position he’s putting Eliza in. But there’s a spark of humanity there; he’s most alive and genuine when describing his own enthusiasms, the beauty and wonder of language and great literature. I actually found myself pitying him a bit, as the best he can do for a declaration of love, even to himself, is the wistful “I was serenely independent and content before we met; Surely I could always be that way again and yet; I’ve grown accustomed to her look; Accustomed to her voice, accustomed to her face.”

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But the ending! There’s absolutely no satisfactory way to tie up this story. Shaw wrote an afterword to his play, and insisted that Eliza ended up marrying Freddy and running a flower shop with him (the flower shop being her original ambition and motive for learning to speak proper English). Yet it’s hard to find a marriage to someone she didn’t love or respect to be a fitting conclusion to Eliza’s story. A romance with Higgins is equally hard to imagine, though, at least without doing violence to what we know of the characters; she has grown and changed through her education, but he has not. At least not yet.  Perhaps there is hope?  Comedies often match unlikely couples at their conclusions, and understandably so…we like to wrap things up with a bow and see people paired off. But this musical spends so much time specifically focused on gender and class that’s it’s impossible to overlook their differences; for her to capitulate to his gruff demands is a defeat, and not what we want to see from the determined Eliza. This production leaves their ultimate fates in some ambiguity…and that is perhaps, although not altogether pleasing, the best that can be done.

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You’ll likely be hungry after the performance, and will want to talk about gender politics, happy and unhappy endings, the theater of ideas, the beautiful set and costumes, and the wonderful music. You can stay on the Lincoln Center campus and eat at Lincoln (expensive, but it’s a very cool setting for upscale Italian). You can wander down to Columbus Circle and eat at the Landmarc if you’re in the mood for bistro fare, or have some pub food at P.J. Clarke’s right across the street. We got back in a cab and headed over to the recently-reopened 21 Club for some old-school New York fun, meeting our husbands at the bar and finishing off the evening with oysters, salads, steak, and red wine. (A word to the wise: only go to 21 if you’re dressed up…it’s possibly the only restaurant left in NYC which requires men to wear jackets. Then again, you should “Put on your Sunday Clothes” to go to a Broadway show, anyway. It’s absolutely what Dolly Gallagher Levi and Eliza Doolittle would do.)

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Laura LaVelle is an attorney and writer who lives in Connecticut, in a not quite 100-year-old house, along with her husband, two daughters, and a cockatiel.

Laura can be contacted at laura@newswhistle.com.

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Poster Image Courtesy of Lincoln Center Theater