My Fair Lady at the Guthrie

Jeff McCarthy, Helen Anker and Tony Sheldon In My Fair Lady. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Jeff McCarthy, Helen Anker and Tony Sheldon In My Fair Lady. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Valiant and übertalented, Janet Preus and John Olive, attended the Tuesday evening performance of My Fair Lady (at the Guthrie, through Aug 31). They then betook themselves down to Sea Change for beverages, salty french fries and pithy conversation, excerpted herewith:

John Olive: The audience enjoyed My Fair Lady, insanely.

Janet Preus: They did and for good reason. The [Alan Jay] Lerner and [Frederick] Lowe songs are a marvel. Tuneful, clever, zippy, yet pointed, character-driving. “I Could Have Danced All Night,” “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly.”

JO: Boffo.

JP: And this My Fair Lady, for the most part, presents the songs extremely well.

JO: I found the show TV-esque, breezy, fizzy – and mud-puddle shallow. But it works and the songs are marvelous. Guthrie tickets are expensive, but here the public gets good value.

JP: The story of Eliza Doolittle becoming “a duchess,” overcoming her Cockney background, simply by changing the way she talks, has tremendous resonance. It’s all about class and contemporary Americans don’t know, or care, about the old British class system. This production presents the brilliant songs brilliantly and pooh-poohs the class issue, but who cares. Well, I do.

JO: This is definitely a Lerner and Lowe production. I couldn’t help but think of the Ten Thousand Things production of My Fair Lady which I reviewed a few years back. They cut the play to shreds, and for the most part they couldn’t sing, but the George Bernard Shaw story [My Fair Lady is based on Shaw’s play Pygmalion] came through vividly. TTT presented us with a Shaw show and it was wonderful.

What did you think of the performances?

JP: I adored Tony Sheldon as Pickering. He was goofy, sweet, and he countered Jeff McCarthy [as Higgins] at every turn. Sheldon gives My Fair Lady a richness and multi-layered size.

I also thought Tyler Michaels as Freddy was terrific. Lord, can he sing. “Now That I’m On The Street Where You Live.” Wow. Higgins mocks the idea of Eliza marrying Freddy, but I thought he was a real catch: charming, accepting of her background, and he really loves her. Why not?

JO:  Michaels brilliantly played the Emcee in Latté Da’s recent Cabaret. He is a super-talented young man and he’s going places.

JP: McCarthy I found… unconnected. Higgins is a jerk, but he still has to show us that he is connecting with his fellow players.

JO: He sings well.

JP: He does, but he diesn’t have to. It’s his jerkism that drives the play in Act I, but then it becomes a problem.

JO: I would like to mention Robert O. Bergdahl as Zoltan. It’s a small role, but he was hootingly funny.

JP: I also had trouble with Helen Anker as Eliza. She’s a terrific actor. She really nailed Eliza. But her singing was just adequate.

JO: I liked her as the Cockney Eliza. This she played with creativity and loose-jointed verve. But when she became a “lady,” well, I found her stiff and much less interesting. But I think this is a problem with the story.

This is another G show where they bring in a slew of out-of-towners and I question whether they’re worth the investment. There are locals who could do this play gang-bustersly: Bradley Greenwald, for instance.Another local musical star plays a small part in this show: Cat Brindisi.

JP: Let’s talk about the ending.

JO: In my not-so-humble opinion, My Fair Lady, unlike other musical masterworks of the period, South Pacific, West Side Story, is fatally flawed.

JP: Act 1 works well: can she do it? But in the second act we have to deal with relationship and here My Fair Lady is much less successful. Eliza may want Higgins’ approval, but does she want him?

JO: The issue is Higgins’s pricktitude.

JP: Yes! What do the other characters, specifically, what does Eliza see in him?

JO: I thought [director Joe] Dowling staged the ending poorly. It was all in Higgins’s head. A fantasy.

JP: Really?

JO: That was my interpretation. Usually the play is staged so that Eliza overhears “I’ve Grown Accustomed To Her Face.” This melts her heart and she goes to him. The end. But here she’s still wearing her bejewelled gown and she enters from the wings. A dream figure.

JP: If so, it is staged ineffectively. It goes by too fast to really resonate.It was so ambivalent and took me out of the world of the play.

JO: So what do we think?

JP: The performances are strong. The show has size and power. It’s worth a look for the marvelous songs. What lyric writing! My, my!

2 comments for “My Fair Lady at the Guthrie

  1. Doug Thomson
    August 24, 2014 at 5:06 pm

    I just saw the play and was interested in going back to see your review. My daughter and I really enjoyed it, the music was wonderful, I didn’t mind the British subject matter because I’m an Anglophile.. but certainly the story and character development are unconvincing, and the end does seem abrupt and kind of falls flat. However, I came away a little more interested in the history of how it all came together: Shaw being as much social and political theorist as playwright (?), and then eventually Loewe come along with those fantastic songs. A really interesting combination. Plus, there were a lot of good situations and jokes related to the phonetic/linguistic theme. I actually thought Eliza was fine btw, though I suppose it is true that she doesn’t have a fantastic voice.

  2. Steven LaVigne
    August 2, 2014 at 4:40 pm

    I had the pleasure and privilege of directing Shaw’s Pygmalion this Spring, and earlier this week, saw The Goodman Theater’s exquisite revival of Brigadoon, featuring a slightly altered libretto. Not having seen this musical for almost 50 years, I was so pleased. Alas, not so with the Guthrie’s My Fair Lady. I’ve seen two other productions prior to this one: a four-hour high school rendering that was just plain awful, and a 1978 tour starring Edward Mulhare and the original sets. I expect I’m not destined to ever see a good stage version of this greatest of musicals. While Tony Sheldon’s Pickering is spot on (I saw him on Broadway in Priscilla) and Jeff McCarthy’s Higgins has many of the character’s highs and lows, Helen Anker’s Eliza destroys any value the production may have attained.

    Anker doesn’t have the voice for the role, and her Eliza is severely misguided by director Joe Dowling, who neither trusts the script or the audience, many of whom hooted their pleasure over the poorly staged songs. She can’t hit the high notes at all and it hurt to listen to her throaty performance. Her Eliza is far too modern and streetwise for 1912. Tyler Michaels has a lovely voice, but his “On the Street Where You Live” is ruined by ridiculous staging. Why not just stand there and sing this perfectly marvelous tune?

    Walt Spangler’s set is flexible and moves well, but the opening scene looks nothing like the real Covent Garden Market being represented. Fabio Toblini’s costumes are inexcusably bad. For the Embassy Ball, Eliza wears a silver gown with a hideous headpiece, and BROWN shoes!! My friend and I left at intermission and I’ll think twice about going to the Guthrie again!!

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