A musical theater offering of the highest quality must do so many things right. The costumes must look perfect. The sets should wow the audience. The cast members need to dazzle with their acting and their singing. Good choreography – and blocking in general – should look graceful, natural and of the moment.
I am hard pressed to think of a touring production that has come through Northwest Arkansas in recent memory that combines these things better than “My Fair Lady,” onstage at the Walton Arts Center through Sunday (Aug. 14). Revisited by the Lincoln Center Theater for a run that returned to Broadway in 2018 before touring the country, it is a revival of one of Broadway’s most beloved shows.
“My Fair Lady”
When: Aug. 10-14, 2022
Where: Walton Arts Center, Fayetteville
Cost: Tickets start at $41 plus fees
Tickets: 479-443-5600 or waltonartscenter.org
Note: As of August 2022, there are no specific COVID safety requirements for those attending the show. Details can be found on the venue’s COVID policies page.
The actors who inhabit our lead characters – a professor of languages, Henry Higgins (played locally by Laird Mackintosh), and the flower-selling girl from the streets he takes on as a pupil, Eliza Doolittle (played by Shereen Ahmed) – are first-rate. The set transformed into a half dozen locations in Edwardian England – Higgins’ well-appointed home, a ‘standard’ pub frequented by Eliza’s father Alfie, the windowed garden room of Higgins’ mother’s home, the dingy street where Eliza meets the professor and more. The central set piece – Wiggins’ home – rotates to show different rooms and scenes and is really quite inventive. And there are the songs, of course – Broadway staples such as “Wouldn’t it be Loverly,” “With a Little Bit of Luck” and “I’ve Grown Accustomed to her Face.” I find no fault in how any were performed during the Tuesday night (Aug. 9) production that I watched. Ahmed’s rendition of “I Could Have Danced All Night” was particularly perfect.
I just didn’t like the story. I found it mean-spirited and empty of life lessons. But I realize this opinion is not shared by everyone – quite the opposite, in fact.
So let’s look back to the story a bit. The action of “My Fair Lady” begins on the street where Eliza is selling flowers for pennies to anyone who will take notice of her. She’s surrounded by those just as destitute as she is. Enter Higgins and Colonel Hugh Pickering (played by Kevin Pariseau), two lovers of language who meet by chance near Eliza’s street corner. Higgins dazzles everyone there by guessing where they are from based on their accents alone. Accents so thick, in fact, that the show’s audiences may have moments where they have to work to understand the dialogue.
Indeed, it is a play of languages, and the class lines they sometimes represent. It is Eliza’s Cockney accent that gives Higgins such a low opinion of her. But to prove his status as a teacher, he agrees to take on Eliza as a student/ward. He’s so confident in his abilities to teach even the lowest-class woman – who he more than once calls a “gutter snipe” – that he bets Pickering he can pass her off as royalty six months later. Through militaristic language drills and Eliza’s stubbornness, she works to lose her street-forged tongue and subsequently find the stature befitting someone in Britain’s high society.
Her dogged efforts to do so provide us with much of the show’s drama, and the humor, too. She and the professor work until the wee hours of the morning, much to the chagrin of the Higgins’ house staff, who just want to rest. We are meant to laugh when Eliza can’t pronounce an ‘H’ or when Pickering accidentally slips into Eliza’s accent after hearing it so frequently. There are also laughs to be had when Alfie (played by Martin Fisher), who has come into some money, announces it’s time for him to get married. His last free night is the subject of the song “Get Me to the Church on Time” and features a chaotic dance scene complete with wild drinking and a drag show.
Alfie’s ascent into the middle class comes just as Eliza has debuted at the ball and reached the end of the six months she signed on for with Higgins. As a result, everyone is forced to think through what they need most in life – companionship, status or perhaps something more.
I would wager – just as confidently as Higgins did regarding his teaching abilities – that if you loved the original 1956 Broadway show or the 1964 film that you will love this production. The acting is top-notch; the songs keenly delivered. Or maybe you’re just a fan of set pieces – you’ll be stunned too.
“My Fair Lady,” the first show of the current Broadway series at the Walton Arts Center, is the kind of show that can delight without surprising. It might not be my favorite show, but it is of many musical theater lovers. And if it’s your cup of tea, it will make for a perfectly loverly evening.