Perfection and humanity rarely coexist, as Professor Henry Higgins discovers the hard way in the Guthrie Theater’s production of the classic Lerner and Loewe musical My Fair Lady. Although guised as a lighthearted comedy, the play explores the tensions that arise from misogyny, class stratification, and modern ideals, all while disarming the audience with a liberal supply of wit and humor.
One of the most well-known and beloved musicals in history, My Fair Lady (based on the play Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw) follows the story of Eliza Doolittle, a poor Cockney girl who sells flowers in Covent Garden for a living although her dream is to be a proper lady who works in a flower shop. When famed phonetician professor Henry Higgins and his friend Colonel Pickering come across Eliza pandering her wares in the street one evening (and overhear her dreadful accent), Higgins boasts that he could pass such an unfortunate creature off as a duchess with just six months of his instruction. Pickering takes him up on that bet, and together they attempt to transform Eliza from a “draggletailed guttersnipe” into an elegant lady.
From the ridiculously oversized ladies’ hats at the Ascot Races to the scuffed garb of the Covent Garden Cockneys, the production captures the essence of Eliza’s London down to the grittiest detail. A stately set design by Walt Spangler makes you feel as though you’re reclining in Higgins’ ornate study, sipping a cup of the housekeeper’s coffee while the characters bicker, and at times it’s easy to imagine yourself in the slick, smoggy streets of London, wrapped in purple twilight after the rain.
The lively full-cast numbers threaten to sweep the spotlight away from the central story, with a particularly rousing rendition of “Get Me to the Church on Time,” while the sweet-voiced Tyler Michaels, playing Eliza’s gentlemanly suitor Freddy, wows with his giddy performance of “On the Street Where You Live.” The background cast transitions easily from ragged buskers on the curb to young toffs drawling their highborn syllables at the racetrack, subtly complementing Eliza’s own transition into a strange new world of high society.
Eliza, played by Helen Anker, captures perfectly the human element that’s missing in the typical Cinderella story. Her determination, stubbornness, and capability make her much more than a common drudge suddenly whisked to the heights of success by magic, but a hardworking participant in her own transformation.
Jeff McCarthy’s delightfully nasty Higgins, however, is so resplendently egotistical that he’s blind to the lack of perfection in himself, boasting of his “Miltonian mind” and taking credit for all of Eliza’s successes, only to find that the “perfect woman” he has created cannot be controlled like a puppet. The play is never more satisfying than at the end, when Eliza finally gives him a tongue lashing to knock him down a peg, and at last he stumbles over his own pride.
The ambiguity of the ending has long troubled many critics and theatergoers alike, even after Lerner and Loewe somewhat embellished Shaw’s original resolution. Some see the production as a romance, and others as a mouthpiece for Shaw’s scathing sociopolitical views. For instance, one of the sole reasons that Eliza’s father, the crafty Alfred P. Doolittle, appears to be in the play (besides as fuel for a few good-humored laughs) is to criticize the imposition of “middle class morality” on his previously happy wastrel’s life.
The play is backwards, then. It’s an unconventional love story, which ends not in passion but in the mere suggestion that Henry and Eliza just might be able to tolerate one another. It’s an abnormal rags-to-riches story, where the rise from the grime-encrusted gutters to glittering English court halls spells a happy ending only to the degree that our characters are now economically stable, at an emotional cost that almost makes it not worth the effort.
When sweetened by the delights of song and dance and mischievous English charm, the clash between the classes doesn’t seem quite so violent. But Eliza’s struggle in her attempt to reform herself, and her angry bouts with Higgins demonstrate the underlying tension—something that Shaw was able to dig out of the rough like diamonds, and that Lerner and Loewe were able to polish into a gleaming comment on identity, class, and the stratification of society, as well as a bloody good evening of entertainment.
My Fair Lady plays at the Guthrie through August 31.