The delightful Lincoln Center Theater Production of “My Fair Lady,” which is playing the Fox Theater through Apr. 3, checks all the boxes, and then some. It is easily the best production to grace the Fox’s stage so far this season. The Lincoln Center touring company offers beautiful, strong voices and charismatic performances, plus gorgeous fully-built sets that put to shame all those touring productions that relay almost entirely on projections instead of physical sets.
Even if you are not a great fan of musicals (which is the case for this writer), this show is a must-see, filled with sparkling performances, humor and fun, as well as those favorite Lerner and Loewe songs like “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?” or “The Street Where You Live.” This production is so wonderful, it overcomes any such reservations. Of course, St. Louis’s legions of musicals fans would do well to flock to this show, for a complete treat. Lerner and Loews’ “My Fair Lady” is one of best of the classic musicals but this excellent production is a particularly fine one. The beloved songs are all sung by such fine, strong voices that all the lyrics were clear, overcoming the sometimes problematic sound quality at the Fox that has muddled lesser voices. Every word, spoken and sung, was crystal clear.
Set in Edwardian England, “My Fair Lady” opens outside the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, where Professor Henry Higgins (Laird Macintosh), a linguist specializing in regional English accents, encounters Eliza Doolittle (Shereen Ahmed), a penniless young Cockney selling flowers on the street. Shortly after, Higgins also runs into fellow linguist Colonel Pickering (Kevin Pariseau), whom he invites to stay with him. After Higgins takes notes on Eliza’s accent, as well as the accents of several others nearby, he gives Eliza a business card, in case she wants speech lessons to reduce her accent, and have a better chance at a job as a shop girl.
Dreaming of a more comfortable life, Eliza sings “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly,” backed by a quartet. The next day, she shows up at the professor’s home, asking him to give her speech lessons. After Higgins brags to Pickering that he can teach this Cockney flower girl to talk like a duchess and even pass her off at an upcoming royal ball, the pair make a bet. So they can work around the clock, Higgins suggests Eliza move in to his home, and persuades her with the offer of free room and board, new clothes, and daily chocolates.
Thus starts this beloved tale inspired by the classic “Pygmalion,” with the feisty, strong-willed Eliza holding her own against the egotistical, socially clueless Prof. Higgins and more kindly Col. Pickering as they run her run her through endless exercises to replace her Cockney accent with an upper class one. Gayton Scott plays Prof. Higgins’ housekeeper Mrs. Pearce, who becomes a kind of ally of Eliza. Eliza’s charismatic but opportunist and hard-drinking father Alfred Doolittle, played by baritone Martin Fisher with much panache, shows up at one point, looking for money. Sam Simahk plays Freddie, the son of one of the aristocrats Higgins plans to fool with the re-made Eliza, who is smitten with her as soon as he lays eyes on her.
One of the big delights of this production are the wonderful sets. The purpose of the sets, props and costumes is to create the world of the play, and these do that beautifully. The massive sets are so striking, they are almost characters in the show, and add greatly to being able to immerse oneself in the show’s Edwardian world. The show opens with the soaring front of the opera house, with more-distant buildings created by projection screens, and period props to round things out. Prof. Higgins’ home is an enormous two-level Victorian structure, which rotates to reveal various sets, from Higgins’ study, to the servants quarters, to a slice of the garden outside, to the bedroom interiors. Other sets are a similar mix of physical sets, projections and props, all looking splendid.
Shereen Ahmed has a beautiful voice and makes a charming Eliza. She delighful singing “Just You Wait,” in which frustrated Eliza plots revenge against head-driving Prof. Higgins, as she was in her opening number. The ensemble comedy was spot on, with the actors playing the major roles of Eliza, Higgins and Pickering particularly good. Sam Simahk is also charming as love-struck Freddie, singing an especially fine version of the romantic “On the Street Where You Live.”
A standout in the cast, vocally and comically, was Martin Fisher, as Alfred Doolittle, a bit of color-blind casting that puts a big talent into an always showy, vaudevillian role. Fisher pumps it up even more, mugging to the audience and booming out the songs. His “Get Me to the Church on Time” production number was a highlight of the show. Instead of the usual assortment of pals streaming out of a pub, we get dancing girls with the pub patrons, plus cross-dressing women and men, and finally dancing guys in drag mirroring the earlier dancing girls, full of raucous fun and high-voltage energy.
The costumes were splendid, and particularly fancy and frilly in the race track scene (despite a glitch with an overhead prop on opening night), and opulent and glittering in the royal ball scene.
All in all, “My Fair Lady” gave the audience a wonderful evening, with excellent performances, wonderful voices, and all the magic of the theater one could hope for.
“My Fair Lady” is on stage at the Fabulous Fox through Apr. 3.
© Cate Marquis