Musical: “My Fair Lady”
Company: Touring show
Venue: The Fabulous Fox Theatre, 539 N. Grand Blvd., St. Louis
Dates: Through April 3
Tickets: $29 to $95; contact 314-534-1111 or metrotix.com
Highlights: Bartlett Sher’s 2018 Lincoln Center Theater revival of the 1956 Tony Award-winner for Best Musical brings its polish, panache and exuberance to The Fabulous Fox Theatre for an exhilarating evening of entertainment. It’s filled with splashy musical numbers, stirring singing and a spitfire performance by Shereen Ahmed as Eliza.
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Story: Linguist professor Henry Higgins spends his time strolling the streets of London in 1912 eavesdropping on the residents of sundry area locales. He has an uncanny knack for pinning down people’s residences, sometimes within a few blocks, by noting the inflections, accents and other eccentricities in their voices.
Technically, Higgins is a phonetician, a linguist who specializes in phonetics, and he highly impresses Col. Hugh Pickering, a noted Englishman who meets Higgins purely by happenstance in Covent Garden on one of the latter’s scientific investigations of accents. Both are drawn to a flower girl whose thick Cockney accent helps Higgins as he rattles off the environs of several pedestrians in the immediate vicinity.
The girl, Eliza Doolittle, shows up later at Higgins’ residence and says she’d like to hire him to teach her elocution lessons to help her land a job in a florist’s shop. This inspires Higgins to make a wager with his houseguest, Pickering, that within six months he can “mold” Eliza so convincingly that he could pass her off as an elegant lady at a fancy ball.
So begins the quest of the imperious Higgins as he browbeats, exhorts and mercilessly drives Eliza to perfect her speech and become a lady who speaks “proper English.” Can he achieve his goal? Will Eliza put up with his grinding tutorials for months on end? It’s a battle of sharp wits and fiery spirits at the Higgins home.
Other Info: Since The Fox reopened in 1982 as a theater venue, this marks just the second production of “My Fair Lady” to grace its spacious stage, following a 1993 touring production that was led by Richard Chamberlain as Henry Higgins.
Termed by many experts as “the perfect musical,” this three-hour, two-act extravaganza features a crisp book and smart lyrics written by Alan Jay Lerner and an infectious score composed by Frederick Loewe. The original production, which was based on Bernard Shaw’s play and Gabriel Pascal’s motion picture, “Pygmalion,” opened on Broadway in 1956 and closed in 1962 after 2,717 performances, the longest-running musical in Broadway history at that time.
Rex Harrison won a Tony Award for his portrayal of Higgins in that version, more or less speaking his lyrics rather than singing them, which worked quite well for audiences who also were attracted to a young British actress named Julie Andrews as Eliza. Since that time, the role of Higgins has often been similarly “spoken” through the lyrics, as is the case with this latest rendition with Laird Mackintosh as the insufferable professor.
Sher, a legendary Broadway figure, directs this latest revival with an abundance of exuberance, moving his players through engaging performances that take full advantage of Christopher Gattelli’s exhilarating choreography. With Ted Sperling’s music supervision of a score which features one memorable tune after another, this 2018 revival is a triumph of both form and fashion.
Costume designer Catherine Zuber dresses the players in a dazzling array of Edwardian fashions as the characters cavort across an impressive, rotating set designed by Michael Yeargan to showcase not only the gritty streets of Covent Garden but also Higgins’ handsome mansion in upscale London. Donald Holder’s sumptuous lighting design bathes all of it in handsome hues throughout.
Marc Salzberg adds the complementary sound design, Robert Russell Bennett and Phil Lang provide the lively musical arrangements, Trude Rittman brings a flourish to the dance arrangements, and John Bell chips in with expert musical direction. Bell conducts the orchestra, which features Luke Flood as keyboardist, Dmitriy Melkumov as violinist and concertmaster, and Mark O’Kain as percussionist, as well as local union musicians.
Ahmed is a triple threat, displaying a precise comic touch as well as a soaring voice and smooth dance movements on such standards as “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly,” “The Rain in Spain” and “I Could Have Danced All Night.” Mackintosh is at his best as the imperious Higgins joining Ahmed on “The Rain in Spain” while musing that “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face.”
The stellar supporting cast includes Kevin Pariseau as the cheerfully addled Colonel Pickering; Gayton Scott as Higgins’ efficient and long-suffering head of household, Mrs. Pearce; and Sam Simahk as the lovestruck Freddy Eynsford-Hill, who wiles away the time outside Higgins’ home hoping to catch a glance of Eliza while merrily warbling “On the Street Where You Live.”
Leslie Alexander is amusing as the professor’s droll mother, Mrs. Higgins, who is most sympathetic to Eliza, and Martin Fisher brings down the house as Eliza’s “moral compass,” better known as her wastrel father, Alfred P. Doolittle. Fisher commands the stage on the show’s two biggest numbers, “With a Little Bit of Luck” in the first act and the unstoppable “Get Me to the Church on Time” in the second.
Sher ensures that this latest Broadway revival of a staple from the 1950s is sharp, steady and scintillating from start to finish. It’s a loverly presentation.