My Fair Lady, a Fair Production
Anyone who has any knowledge of theater has to be familiar with Lerner and Lowe’s My Fair Lady. This show has become an icon on the Broadway stage and in film. The Lincoln Center production has finally, after a nearly two-year delay due to the COVID shut down, made its way to Proctors Theater in Schenectady this week. Unfortunately, COVID was not finished with this production, never before have I seen a show where every major lead was understudied due to a COVID cast outbreak.
The highlight of the show is the story of a cockney flower girl who is transformed by a professor of language and speech into being able to be passed off at the Embassy Ball as a lady, fit to work as a lady in a flower shop, was the technical end of the show. Lerner and Lowe’s music includes so many iconic songs: The Rain in Spain, I Could Have Danced All Night, Get Me to the Church on Time I’ve Grown accustomed to Her Face and so many others. Michael Yeargan’s set design, Catherine Zuber’s absolutely stunning costumes, and Donald Holder’s lighting create a magnificent picture of London at the turn of the last century.
Here’s the problem with a cast of stand-ins… they have not had the opportunity to make their characters live. Each may have stepped into the shoes of their characters once or twice, but they have not had the opportunity to collectively create a world in which to live. Sarah Quinn Taylor has a stunning voice. She handles Eliza’s vocals with great ease. What she lacked was the nuanced emotion of the character, we miss her growth and transformation. It was all quite mechanical. We never believe her change from Liza the cockney flower girl into Eliza the lady during The Rain in Spain, the moment when everything changes. She does come to life in her responses to suitor Freddy Hill when she tells him to basically shut up stop talking and show her in Show Me and again when she finally stands up to Higgins in Without You. George Psomas’s strong voice again saves his character in On The Street Where you Live, but we never see him as Freddy Eynsford-Hill the lovelorn suitor, falling for Eliza from the moment he meets her at Ascot. Patrick Kerr as Pickering does an admirable job as Col. Pickering, the gentleman who is backing Eliza’s lessons and her defender to Higgins throughout the process.
Wade McCullom presents a very different Henry Higgins than I have previously ever seen. McCullum’s Higgins, while still an egomaniacal narcissist concerned only with how this entire thing reflects on him, with little or no consideration for Eliza, by the show’s end reveals a man with a heart. He is a softer, more foppish, neurotic, and comic Higgins than we have previously been treated to before. In today’s world, would Higgins be considered a predator, or perhaps worse, an abuser? But we need to view this in the lens that the show was created, in order to be fair to everyone.
Finally, Martin Fisher, as Alfred P. Doolittle, Eliza’s father who is the only one of the major roles to have the original cast performers in the role, is a major disappointment. He too has an amazing bass voice, but that’s where it ends. His interpretation of Doolittle is to make him nothing more than a buffoon. He pushes every line as if it is his only line. Fisher offers no finesse to the part that should be played with understated elegance and commonality. Leslie Alexander as Mrs. Higgins is a bright light in the evening. Her comic timing is impeccable and the stage lights up each time she appears. Gayton Scott offers a strong, somewhat less sympathetic Mrs. Pearce but handles her job well.
What the production has lost is the nuance that it demands. Comic bits go unnoticed by the audience. An oddity of the evening is that one beautiful set of Prof. Higgin’s study is played all the way upstage. The set-piece never moves downstage and is so far away from the audience that one can not help but wonder whether there was a malfunction and it was never able to roll downstage. The majority of the show is played off that set and it is so far from the audience that it makes it difficult for the audience to connect.
In all, it is still a difficult time for the theater. One can only wonder what the production would have been like with the original cast in place. Bravo to the group of understudies for stepping in and hoping for a little bit of luck to make My Fair Lady the classic it deserves.
My Fair Lady runs through Sunday, May 22. For ticket information: www.proctors.org or call 800-515-2171.
Editors Note: For a different take on My Fair Lady, read Laura DaPolito’s review, here.