Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Ordway Center for the Performing Arts' Broadway at the Ordway series is hosting a non-Equity touring production of the lavish and praiseworthy Lincoln Center revival of My Fair Lady that opened in New York in 2018 and ran for fifteen months. An Equity tour of that production visited the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis, the first week of March 2020, sneaking in just a week before COVID-19 shut down the theater industry. I admit to being unsure I needed to see another My Fair Lady production so soon, but once the orchestra settled into the lilting overture–an honest to God overture!–followed by the curtain rising on Eliza Doolittle hawking her flowers to the swells outside Covent Garden Opera House, I knew that I absolutely had needed of another dose of this enchantment after all.
My Fair Lady, based on Shaw's play Pygmalion, pits Eliza against linguist Professor Henry Higgins. Higgins makes a wager with his friend, Colonel Pickering, that with intensive tutoring in proper elocution of the King's English (and a fair amount of etiquette training) he could transform the disheveled, coarse-looking flower seller into a dazzling lady, suitable to attend the posh Embassy Ball, six months way. Liza agrees to the gambit; after all, it means lodging in the professor's elegant home, being given a stylish new wardrobe, and eating three square meals a day for the next six months. However, the task turns out to be arduous and the professor's disciplined instruction proves to be quite punishing. It may be more than Eliza bargained for. When her father, a rake and inebriate named Alfred Doolittle, learns about the arrangement, he shows up and manages to profit from Eliza's good fortune as well.
I hope it won't come as a spoiler to say that Eliza succeeds–her breakthrough lesson celebrated when she is able to properly pronounce "'The Rain in Spain' stays mainly in the plain," punctuated by an exhilarating Spanish-infused dance for Eliza, Higgins, and Pickering. It is 3:00 a.m., and after the excitement of her success, Eliza is told to go to bed, but she is too happy for that, insisting "I Could Have Danced All Night." Those two musical numbers, back to back, are among the most exhilarating twelve minutes (more or less) in all of musical theater.
However, once the challenge has been met–Eliza fools everyone at the ball into believing her to be of royal blood–Higgins takes all the credit for himself, totally ignoring Eliza's relentless hard work. Furious and deeply hurt, she leaves his home. It is at this juncture that My Fair Lady has garnered criticism over the years. As written, Eliza returns, apparently willing to remain with him in spite of his misogynistic arrogance, well expressed in "I'm an Ordinary Man" and "A Hymn to Him." The Lincoln Center production offers a different ending, one that leaves things far less resolved, with the distinct possibility that Eliza does not submit after all. This may not be a totally satisfactory solution to the dilemma, but it at least opens possibilities not previously offered, and that is something.
I've mentioned several of the songs, but there are many more gems. Eliza is first introduced to us as a snarling protector of her minute realm as a flower seller, wise to any who would deceive or abuse her, but "Wouldn't It Be Loverly?" reveals the dreams she harbors of a better life. She takes out her anger at Professor Higgins and his regard for pronunciation over feelings on a lovesick suitor, Freddy in the raging "Show Me," while Freddy expresses his total adoration for the girl he barely knows in "On the Street Where You Live." Higgins states his disdain for the dialects he views as an assault on the English language in "Why Can't the English?," and Alfred Doolittle, meanwhile, stays true to character delivering two wonderful, rousing music-hall style numbers: "With a Little Bit of Luck" and "Get Me to the Church on Time." All marvelous.
Madeline Powell has a wonderful, strong soprano that makes each of Eliza's songs a joy to hear. Powell also has the acting ability to create a full picture of a young woman who knows she must fight to get her fair share in life–or any share at all. Jonathan Grunert is a splendid Henry Higgins, full of pomp and self-importance, although a tendency to read his lines very, very quickly makes it hard to always follow them. The songs assigned to Higgins were famously crafted to allow for them to be spoken more than sung, to suit the talents of original star, Rex Harrison, but Grunert sings full out, and his voice never disappoints.
Michael Hegarty delivers a winning comedic take on Alfred Doolittle, singing with gusto and emphasizing the wisdom Alfred employs in order to maintain his place on the bottom rung of life. Nathan Haltiwanger nearly stops the show with a gorgeous performance of "On the Street Where You Live," and ably conveys the sweet lunacy of love at first sight. Becky Saunders plays Higgins' imperious mother with the requisite starch, wit, and an intolerance for suffering fools, including her own son. Pickering's main tasks are to admire Higgins and be sympathetic to Eliza, but John Adkison does them awfully well. Madeline Brennan plays the head housekeeper, Mrs. Pearce, with the authority that would earn her a place at Downton Abbey. The entire ensemble is swell, singing, dancing or acting in the background as servants, opera-goers, barflies, peddlers, constables, or other denizens of the great city of London in 1910.
This production, like the first touring company and the original Broadway mounting, is directed by Bartlett Sher, who bestows a clarity of vision and a deep love for great musical theatre over the entire affair. Choreographer Christopher Gattelli also remains from the Broadway mounting, having imaginatively created staged numbers for the rousing scenes, an appropriate restrained gavotte for high society at the Ascot races, and a lovely waltz for the Embassy Ball (watching it made me wish there were more waltzes on stage, with their uplift and promise of romance).
The physical production remains amazing, as it was in the previous tour and, I have been told, at Lincoln Center. Michael Yeargan's dazzling sets build the city of London before our eyes and reach their peak with the two-level library in which Higgins tutors and spars with Eliza. Catherine Zuber has designed beautiful, lush costumes, with the Covent Garden scene, Ascot, and the Embassy Ball offering a designer's field day. Donald Holder's lighting design serves the show exceedingly well. Marc Salzberg and Beth Lake designed the sound. There was some echo distortion during the first twenty minutes or so at the performance I attended, but this seemed to abate for the remainder, and it may be attributed to being the first night of a tour just off the road.
So, once again, in spite of my jaded assumption that My Fair Lady is a thing of my past, it proved to be a most splendid enjoyment in the present, and should I be so fortunate as to have the opportunity, no doubt will continue to provide 24-karat entertainment into the future. It leaves one floating on air. How much more can you ask of a musical?
My Fair Lady runs through March 25, 2023, at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts, 345 Washington Street, Saint Paul MN. Tickets from $44 - $131. Ticket availability is very limited. For tickets and information, please call 651-224-4222 or visit www.ordway.org. For information on the tour, visit www.myfairladyontour.com.
Book and Lyrics: Alan Jay Lerner, adapted from George Bernard Shaw's play Pygmalion; Music: Frederick Lowe; Director: Bartlett Sher; Choreography: Christopher Gattelli; Set Design: Michael Yeargan; Costume Design: Catherine Zuber; Lighting Design: Donald Holder; Sound Design: Mark Salzberg, Beth Lake; Hair and Wig Design: Tom Watson; Orchestrations: Robert Russel Bennet and Phil Lang; Dance Arrangements: Trude Rittman; New Orchestrations: Josh Clayton, Larry Blank; Musical Director and Conductor: David Andrew Rogers; Music Supervision: Ted Sperling; Music Coordination: Talitha Fehr; Casting: Binder Casting, Chad Eric Murnane C.S.A; Associate Director: Samantha Saltzman; Associate Choreographer: Jim Cooney; Associate Set Designer: Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams; Associate Costume Designer: Patrick Bevilacqua; Production Stage Manager: Rebecca Radziejeski; Stage Manager: Gregg Damanti.
Cast: John Adkison (Colonel Pickering), Ashley Agrusa (ensemble), Anna Backer (ensemble), Blaire Beasley (Miss Clara Eynsford-Hill/ensemble), Nick Berke (swing), Sophie Braud (swing), Timothy Scott Brausch (ensemble), Madeline Brennan (Mrs. Pearce), Daniel James Canaday (Professor Karpathy/ ensemble), William Warren Carver (ensemble), Richard Coleman (Jamie/ensemble), Diana Craig (Queen of Transylvania/ ensemble), Andrew Fehrenbacher (Bartender/ensemble), Allyson Gishi (ensemble), Sam Griffin (swing), Jonathan Grunert (Professor Henry Higgins), Nathan Haltiwanger (Freddy Eynsford-Hill), Michael Hegarty (Alfred P. Doolittle), Zoey Lytle (swing), Mark Mitrano (ensemble), Maeghin Mueller (ensemble), Sami Murphy (ensemble), Ryan D. O'Neil (Harry/ensemble), Madeline Powell (Eliza Doolittle), Becky Saunders (Mrs. Higgins), Charlie Tingen (ensemble), Torinae (Mrs. Eynsford-Hill/ensemble), Cullen J. Zeno (ensemble).