My Fair Lady is the most ‘loverly’ production I have ever seen
As a seasoned theatre-goer, I have seen many musical productions in my life, and I thought I had seen all there is to admire. That is, until I witnessed Lincoln Center Theatre‘s exceptional production of My Fair Lady (directed by Bartlett Sher) at Palace Theatre Manchester, following its smash-hit run in the West End, which we also reviewed. This show has raised the bar for excellence in the theatre industry. They did it, they said that they’d do it, and indeed they did: bravo, bravo, bravo!
The musical, based on George Bernard Shaw‘s play Pygmalion (1913), follows the life of Eliza Doolittle, a poor, uneducated flower girl with a thick cockney accent from Covent Garden, who is transformed into a refined lady by speech professor Henry Higgins. The Broadway version, written by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, premiered in 1956. Ten years later, its film adaptation was released, staring Audrey Hepburn, who made the protagonist’s role unmatchable.
That is, it was until Charlotte Kennedy took on Eliza: her incredible voice and hyperrealistic acting gave soul to the character and gave her new emotional layers. Indeed, Kennedy was nothing short of exceptional: one of the most impressive things about her performance was her incredible technique, which captured the nuances of each song beautifully.
Her vocal range was incredible, and she demonstrated excellent control. She brought Eliza to life in a way that few performers have before. Her performance was nuanced and detailed, and her singing had a raw quality that drew the audience in and kept them engaged throughout the show.
I must admit that when she performed the iconic song ‘I Could Have Danced All Night,’ it was difficult to hide my tears. Her rendition of the song was breathtaking, and she effortlessly hit the high notes with ease and clarity, demonstrating her exceptional vocal talent. It was clear that she had put in a tremendous amount of work to perfect her craft. Her incredible voice, combined with her acting skills, made her portrayal of Miss Doolittle truly unforgettable. She left a lasting impression on us: it’s no surprise that she received a standing ovation at the end of the show.
Michale D. Xavier‘s portrayal of the elocution teacher was not any less remarkable: he was able to find the essence of the character and bring his own unique interpretation to the role. One of the standout aspects of Xavier’s portrayal was his ability to capture Higgins’ arrogance and condescension. Higgins is a character who is used to getting his way and sees himself as superior to those around him, particularly Eliza. Xavier was able to convey this sense of superiority through his posture, facial expressions, and vocal inflections.
At the same time, he could also bring out Higgins’ vulnerability and humanity (who is really being transformed here?). Despite his arrogance, Higgins is a complex character with his own insecurities and weaknesses. Xavier was able to show this complexity through his nuanced performance, particularly in his interactions with Eliza.
He also had a strong singing voice and was able to handle the demands of the show’s iconic musical numbers, including ‘Why Can’t the English?’ and ‘I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face’. His performance of the latter song, in particular, was particularly poignant and showcased his ability to show a range of emotions through his singing.
While the play has grown to be a beloved classic musical, we must acknowledge that the plot itself underlines harmful gender stereotypes and is misogynistic, even if done so humorously without intending to be offensive. At its core, My Fair Lady reinforces the idea that women should be judged primarily based on their appearance and social status: “[t]he gentle sex was made for man to marry but, with a little bit of luck, you can have it all and not get hooked” (Alfred, played by Adam Woodyatt); “I find that the moment a woman makes friends with me she becomes jealous, exacting, suspicious, and a damn nuisance” (Higgins).
Indeed, the unapologetically sexist and objectifying songs further the notion that women must conform to particular social norms to be accepted, rather than embracing their individuality and differences like men. This comes to the surface when, in ‘Why Can’t a Woman Be More Like a Man?’, Higgins sings about how women should behave more like men to be considered acceptable: the song reduces women to a set of stereotypes, implying that they are irrational, emotional, and weak, thus contributing to a broader culture that perpetuates misogyny.
Eliza, in particular, is subjected to intense scrutiny throughout the play: she is seen as an object of transformation for her elocution teacher, who sees her only as a challenge and bet to win, consistently belittling and humiliating her. However, given that it is now a period play (which was written years before women even got the right to vote!), the play’s once certainly misogynistic messages have now turned the male characters into subjects of comedy (who is uneducated and ignorant here, really?).
Fortunately, Shaw gave Eliza a deserving ending (finally finding her place in society without the need for men’s help), which is an empowering notion that resonates with the audiences of today. In truth, the play never took itself too seriously and so it still manages to entertain us with its witty dialogues without being intentionally offensive: while some of the characters’ comments and actions may seem outdated and inappropriate by today’s standards, the show ultimately delivers a powerful message of female empowerment and independence.
The other, slightly problematic, theme in My Fair Lady’s central theme is the superiority of the upper classes, who are depicted as more refined, educated, and cultured: “[l]ook at her, a prisoner of the gutter, condemned by every syllable she utters. By right, she should be taken out and hung for the cold-blooded murder of the English tongue’; ‘[s]he’s so deliciously low…so horribly dirty” (Higgins). Eliza’s journey from the lower to upper classes is seen as a sign of her success (portraying the social ladder as a noble endeavour), but it’s important to recognise that this once reinforced classist and elitist beliefs.
However, with the social changes of the past 110 years, this message has, once again, become a social satire, ridiculing the high society by revealing that their exclusivity is nothing more than a (shallow and vain) set of costumes, behaviours, and rituals, which can be imitated by anyone. Not unlike the BBC sitcom You Rang, M’Lord?, My Fair Lady also makes fun of the British class system (even though it certainly romanticises and endorses it) by depicting it as subjectively snobbish rather than objectively posh.
Under Sher’s direction, the musical’s hilarious moments were delivered with impeccable timing and energy by the entire cast. I salute Christopher Gattelli’s incredible, funny, and emotional choreography, Catherine Zuber’s period-appropriate costumes, Michael Yeargan’s set design (which transported us to the streets of London), and the Musical Director Alex Parker’s impeccable work.
Donald Holder‘s lighting and Marc Sazlberg‘s sound design also deserve recognition for enhancing the overall atmosphere of the production and helping to create a truly immersive experience for the audience. Sher’s triumph with this production demonstrated not only his impressive skill as a director, but also his ability to collaborate with a team of talented designers and performers to create a cohesive and unforgettable piece of theater.
Finally, I would like to commend the production team for their attention to detail in every aspect of the show, from the props and set dressing to Kate Elizabeth‘s intricate makeup and hair. It is clear that a great deal of thought and effort went into every aspect of this production, resulting in a truly memorable and entertaining experience for all who attended.
In conclusion, Lincoln Centre Theatre’s production of My Fair Lady is a remarkable feat that sets a new standard for excellence in theatre. Charlotte Kennedy’s portrayal of Eliza Doolittle was exceptional and unforgettable, showcasing her incredible vocal talent and acting skills. Michale D. Xavier’s performance as Henry Higgins was equally remarkable, conveying the character’s arrogance and vulnerability in a nuanced and detailed manner.
The show ultimately delivers a powerful message of female empowerment and independence, and it continues to entertain audiences with its witty dialogue and iconic songs. This family-friendly production is a must-see for any theatre-goer looking for an exceptional musical experience. I have no doubt that it will leave a lasting impression on anyone who watches it.
Don’t miss out on this loverly show!
My Fair Lady runs at Palace Theatre Manchester until April 1 – the final stop of its UK tour.