The latest touring production of My Fair Lady opened Wednesday at the Orpheum Theater in San Francisco — the first new show to play there in almost three years following Hamilton's extended residency.
The 2018 Lincoln Center revival of Lerner and Loewe's My Fair Lady ran for well over a year in the pre-pandemic world of Broadway, and this show's enduring popularity with audiences makes total sense when you see director (and San Francisco native) Bartlett Sher's exuberant and eminently faithful version.
That production starred Lauren Ambrose of Six Feet Under fame, and garnered her a Tony nomination, along with nine other nominations and a win for Catherine Zuber's gorgeous costumes.
The tour, which had an aborted start back in December 2019, stars Ambrose's understudy, Shereen Ahmed, who has a gloriously clear-toned and lovely voice to fit this iconic score, as well as the acting chops to master the morphing elocution and accent of Miss Eliza Doolittle — something that even the great Audrey Hepburn couldn't fully commit to in the film version.
In case you've lived under a cultural rock, My Fair Lady centers on Eliza, a Cockney flower-peddler who gets "adopted" as a kind of case study by two gentlemen obsessed with linguistics and the cultural anthropology of accents. One bets the other that he can't train the accent — and the classlessness — out of the woman and turn her into a convincing lady of society, and you can guess where this leads.
At its core, this is a show about identity, class, and sexism, and as originally imagined by playwright George Bernard Shaw — his play Pygmalion being the source material for the musical — it's become a cultural trope that's underpinned scores of Hollywood movies from Can't Buy Me Love to Pretty Woman. And as classic Broadway musicals go, it's one of the least offensive and enduring, largely because of this princess fantasy plot, and Lerner and Loewe's songs — like "Wouldn't It Be Loverly," "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face," and "Get Me to the Church on Time," which have long since entered the cultural canon.
Sher's direction is an unrepentant celebration of these songs, and the pomp and spectacle of this era of the musical — and he accomplished similarly loving feats with recent Broadway revivals of South Pacific, The King and I, and Fiddler on the Roof. The first-act Ascot scene, and second-act number "Get Me to the Church on Time," are both feats of terrific visual and vocal flair, which can also be credited to Christopher Gattelli's marvelous choreography. Also, Adam Grupper does a star turn as Eliza's dad, Alfred P. Doolittle, and all but steals the show with that latter number — which also, delightfully, includes men in drag mixed in with the can-can girls.
If there's one thing that this production may be trying to do to separate itself from its forebears, it's to highlight the callous charmlessness of the character of Henry Higgins, played here by Laird Mackintosh. Yes, he's witty and he "comes around" in the end to seeing Eliza as a human being and realizing he may be in love with her — but she never really seems to forgive him in this version, and Sher's curious ending only reinforces that.
My Fair Lady is no doubt dated in its overt misogyny — especially with the over-the-top number "A Hymn to Him," sung by Higgins, in which women generally are denounced as silly, unreliable, and "infuriating hags." And it's a sexist trope to begin with that, while men mostly have to earn or inherit their entry into high society, women are just society's objects to be admired and traded.
But Sher gives us some wink-wink moments throughout this production, particularly suggesting that "confirmed bachelor" Colonel Pickering is not so secretly homosexual, and perhaps Higgins may be as well — why are these two living together for eight weeks anyway? In Pygmalion, Shaw was clear that Eliza and Higgins do not end up together romantically, while the musical did its mid-century American best to push them together. Sher seems to attempt to split the difference.
For these reasons, and the enormity of Michael Yeargan's life-size dollhouse of a set, musical theater fans should flock to catch this show before it leaves town. It's above all a spectacle, and a showcase for old-timey stage talent, and a welcome, transporting dose of Broadway gaiety after a long and dismal period of darkened theaters.
'My Fair Lady' plays at the Orpheum through November 28. Find tickets here.