“My Fair Lady,” with music by Frederick Loewe and book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner, is based on the 1913 play “Pygmalion” by George Bernard Shaw. Shaw refused to give permission for a musical adaptation during his lifetime, so after his death in 1950, Lerner and Loewe were asked by his estate to turn the play into a musical. Since their framework for previous musicals involved big chorus and dance numbers and both a love story and secondary love story plot lines (such as in “Brigadoon” and “Paint Your Wagon”), they gave up the project after a first attempt. Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein were then brought in and also failed to adapt the play. Finally, after a two-year hiatus, Lerner and Loewe tried again after deciding the musical needed more action to fill in what was missing between acts. The result was the 1956 Broadway production that garnered six Tony awards. A critical success, it became the longest-running and largest-grossing box office Broadway production to date at that time and produced a best-selling cast album. The stage production was followed by the 1964 movie version that won eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
Plan your escape to the Hippodrome…with ‘My Fair Lady.’
This revival, directed by Bartlett Sher and choreographed by Christopher Gattelli, opened on Broadway in 2018. The North American tour, cancelled in March 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic, resumed in September 2021 and now comes to the Hippodrome thirty years after the last production which starred Richard Chamberlain at the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre in 1993. The story involves the relationship between a linguistics professor, Henry Higgins (Jonathan Grunert), whose specialty is phonetics, and Eliza Doolittle (Madeline Powell), a Cockney flower seller, and his attempts to teach her correct diction so she can pass as a “proper lady.”
This is a musical from Broadway’s Golden Era—well-crafted characters, toe-tapping music, memorable lyrics, clever dialogue, splashy ensemble scenes, a big chorus, and exuberant dancing. The gorgeously detailed sets, designed by Michael Yeargan, and imaginatively crafted costumes, designed by Catherine Zuber, bring to the show a sense of lavishness and beauty that is almost breathtaking. A shining example is the Ascot Gavotte scene in which choreography, costumes, and set come together in a splendid display of synchronized words, notes, and movement. Lighting design by Donald Holder is especially effective in enhancing the ensemble scenes.
“My Fair Lady” is a show with many beloved and tuneful songs. It is no small feat to sing while also maintaining a British accent. Nathan Haltiwanger (who plays Freddy, Eliza’s suitor) sang “On the Street Where You Live” with a clear tenor voice and diction. Ms. Powell, with the challenging “I Could Have Danced All Night,” built the audience’s expectations gradually up to the song’s high note ending and received enthusiastic applause. Some of the songs are half-spoken to music, especially those of Professor Higgins. Mr. Grunert handled those well by seamlessly connecting them to the preceding dialogue.
This was the first national tour experience for all three of the above actors. The direction was a bit uneven in some scenes where the action was frenetic and too quickly paced, making the dialogue difficult to understand. Midway through the first act, the production paused briefly for technical difficulties but had no affect on the rest of the performance. The ensemble numbers (“With a Little Bit of Luck” and “Get Me to the Church on Time”) were exuberant and cleverly choreographed, adding splash and color to the scene.
While Shaw’s “Pygmalion” left the relationship between Higgins and Eliza open-ended and ambiguous, Lerner and Loewe decided to give their musical version a more crowd-pleasing, romantic ending of sorts while retaining the ambiguity. Higgins returns home to his study after an argument with Eliza. Realizing how important she has become to him, he listens to her voice on the gramophone. Eliza reappears at the door and turns off the device to catch his attention. Without looking at her, Higgins delivers that famous last line in his same, incorrigible way, “Eliza, where the devil are my slippers?” and the curtain drops. Here, Bartlett Sher leans more towards Shaw’s original intent (which also may be a product of the current societal changes)—possibly a less hopeful future but still entirely left up to the imagination of the individual audience members.
As one of America’s cultural contributions to the world, musical comedy intends to let its audience escape from the troubles of society for a few hours of romance and humor with singing and dancing to lovely music. Plan your escape to the Hippodrome to enjoy this experience with “My Fair Lady.”
Running Time: Two hours 55 minutes with a 15-minute intermission.
Advisory: Age recommendation is 8+.
“My Fair Lady” runs through January 15, 2023 (with matinees and evening performances on Saturday and Sunday) at the Hippodrome Theatre, 12 N. Eutaw St., Baltimore MD 21201. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit here. Masks are optional.