👇🏼👇🏼👇🏼 (tap) (tap) (tap). Is this thing on? I’m so out of practice. I mean, I haven’t written a theatre review since March 8, 2020, when I saw Passion at Boston Court. We haven’t been to a Broadway in Hollywood show since Escape to Margaritaville at the end of February 2020. I mean it seems like forever since I’ve been, to quote a favorite show, “in a large building in a central part of town in a dark room as part of a play with a lot of people listening, who have all paid a great deal to get it in”.
If you haven’t figured it out, last night I was in such a dark room. With a mask on. Having shown proof of vaccination to get in. Feeling somewhat safe. Could it have been better? Sure. They needed a pre-show announcement reminding people to turn off their cell phones and keep off any device that generates light or noise (as people are out of practice). They needed an announcement to remind people to keep their masks on at all times unless actively eating or drinking (which you shouldn’t do during a show anyway). But still. 🎉 WE WERE AT LIVE THEATRE AGAIN.
Yes, we’re taking it slow. For now, it is pretty much our existing subscriptions and our prior subscriptions when they come back to life. Perhaps more as we get deeper into 2022 and the number of cases continues to drop. But we were at our first show in a long time, and it felt good. As the first notes of the overture drifted over us, the anxiety floated away.
But I ramble. On to the write up.
Last night we saw the Lincoln Center revival of the musical My Fair Lady at Broadway in Hollywood (BIH)/The Dolby Theatre (Program). This was the first BIH show at the Dolby post-COVID, and their second show overall post-COVID (Hamilton started at the Pantages Theatre back in August). As noted above, they have a number of protocols to make patrons feel safer; there’s also comfort in the fact that there have been no reported breakthrough incidents throughout the Hamilton run so far, meaning they are doing something right.
My Fair Lady is, in many ways, a creaky musical that is showing its age. It premiered in March 1956 (meaning it is older than I am), and ran for 2,717 performance. It is well known (especially due to the movie’s success) and for a long time was a staple for regional theatre. Loads of people know the bones of the story, but few have likely seen it on stage recently. Prior to the LCT revival, it was last revived on Broadway in 1994 (1977 and 1981 before that) — a 24 year span. LACLO last did it in 1969; the last big production in Los Angeles was the Downey CLO in 2009. It’s been a while, and truth be told, I don’t think I’d ever seen it on stage.
For those not familiar with the story, the basic premise is a man who studies dialect and English (Henry Higgins), and who thinks the only way to succeed is to speak the Queen’s English, runs into a lower-class flower seller (Eliza Doolittle). He makes a bet that in 6 months he can teach her proper English and pass her off as a member of upper class society. He succeeds at his bet, but at what price?
With these bones, you’ll think it doesn’t fit well in the society of today. Here you have a white man, using the power of his class, to try to take advantage of and rehabilitate a woman from a poorer class. Boy, are those class issues, with a touch of “we’re smarter, we know better”, problematic. Then their is the side of the woman, who is essentially a pawn to the men in her life (at least that’s how it was presented in the 1950s). How does that fit with today’s woman who has agency?
But that’s what memory tells one about the show. Watching the show, those themes aren’t quite there in such a start way. But there are some that are both worse and more familiar. So let me frame the story in a different way.
Let me tell you the story of a man. This man is so full of himself he thinks he knows everything, and can solve the problems of the world. He certainly thinks he can change people into being what he thinks they should be. How does he plan to do this? By bullying them and torturing them. Further, when these people succeed, he’s there to take all the credit and claim he was the only reason things work out well. When the person who changed wants some acknowledgement of their role in the transformation, they are ignored and told they are ridiculous. They are in essence, no more than a trained monkey. A monkey that is useful to keep around, because they make him laugh and bring him his slippers. This man never acknowledges his own flaws; in fact, he projects his flaws upon others absolving himself of any part of a failure.
Now, does that man sound familiar? Have we run into anyone like that recently? But I’m not talking about a recent politician. I’m talking about one of the two main characters in this show: Professor Henry Higgins. The word we use to describe the recent politician fits Higgins to a T: “Narcissist”. Higgins in a narcissist. He believes the world revolves around him, that he can do no wrong, and those in lower positions are there to serve him. He treats anyone below him like crap, and is proud of the fact. So, point in fact, today’s eyes show us that My Fair Lady is, at its heart, a show about a narcissist.
The object of Higgins’ obsession is the flower girl, Eliza Doolittle. Throughout much of the show, she shows precious little character but does stand up for herself a few times. She’s generally bullied and broken down by Higgins — in fact, much of the first act is devoted to breaking her down like a Marine drill sergeant. In the second half, after Eliza finally comes to see the narcissism in Prof. Higgins she attempts to get away but is drawn back. The ending of the show is ambiguous as to whether she succeeds in doing so, but it clear that her attempt to make Higgins see his problematic behavior fails on deaf ears.
The conscience of the show — or at least what passes for one — comes in the form of Colonel Pickering, a colleague of Prof Higgins and one of the lone voices reminding him to keep Eliza’s feelings in mind during the process. But he is, in general, a background character and generally ignored.
The other major fleshed out character is that of Eliza’s father, Alfred Doolittle. He generally shows up to provide boisterous barroom dance numbers to balance the ballads that are fun to watch but don’t advance the plot all that much. But Mr. Doolittle is the source of additional show problems: He essentially offers to sell his daughter, disparages the middle class. When he is dragged into the middle class and has a well-known second act number “I’m Getting Married In The Morning”, he also introduces what I felt to be an unnecessary problem: characters dressed as the opposite sex just for the joke of it all. We have a woman dressed as groom, and men dressed at the bride and bar dancers, all in bustiers. Perhaps in the last millennium men dressed as women were funny. Nowadays it just seems wrong, and there was no context set up that a bar in London in 1912 would have such dancers or a wedding. It was a poor directorial choice for 2018.
As the above makes clear, story-wise, this adaptation of the 1913 play Pygmalion may have worked well in 1956, but feels dated and creaky in 2021. It somehow needs a bit more tweaks to fit with modern sensibilities, or at least more contextualization in the program to put it in the context of its time. But that doesn’t mean the show is bad. The show is grand, glorious, and glittering, under the direction of Bartlett Sher. What saves it are the well-known tunes by Alan Jay Lerner (Book and Lyrics) and Frederick Loewe, as well as the wonderful performances by the touring troupe.
Everyone knows the music from this show. From the opening “Why Can’t The English?” to the ear-worm “I Could Have Danced All Night”; from the dance numbers of “With a Little Bit Of Luck” and “I’m Getting Married in the Morning”; from touching songs like “I’ve Gown Accustomed to Her Face” or “On The Street Where You Live” — essentially every song is at the top of the form. About the only problem is you listen to some of them, such as “Show Me”, and think it was from their later show Camelot… but it wasn’t
The performances were also quite strong. Shereen Ahmed Eliza Doolittle had a lovely spirit and look, and had a remarkably beautiful voice. Ahmed is also noticeable for the diversity she brings to the cast, being Arab-American (as well as having a BS in Criminal Justice, so I sense a career for the restart of Law and Order in her future). Playing opposite her was Laird Mackintosh Prof. Henry Higgins. He bio makes clear that he has the chops to sing well (having been involved with an opera company); alas, he’s in a role that was designed for the sing-speaking Rex Harrison. He makes the best of it, and does bring a good fire to the role.
In the supporting positions are Adam Grupper Alfred P. Doolittle, Kevin Pariseau Col. Hugh Pickering, and to a lesser extent, Leslie Alexander Mrs. Higgins. I’ve noted earlier that Grupper’s role is more one of comic relief. He handles that quite well and is very playful in his numbers and his scenes. Pariseau’s Pickering is also present in the traditional side-kick and reaction role, which he does well. Alexander blends in during the first act, but shines in the second act where she stands up to her son’s narcissism and takes Eliza’s side. There she is wonderful.
In the Tertiary supporting character category were Sam Simahk Freddy Eynsford-Hill and Gayton Scott (at our performance, Sarah Quinn Taylor was substituting) Mrs. Pearce. Simahk captured the character as written well — a man with the personality of an infatuated puppy. Taylor’s Pearce had a bit more meat. Although she didn’t have many lines, she was able to capture through her actions and her face her disapproval of how Higgins was treating Eliza.
Rounding out the cast in various small and ensemble roles were: Lee Zarrett Professor Zoltan Karpathy / Selsey Man; Rajeer Alford Ensemble; Colin Anderson The “Loverly” Quartet, Higgin’s Butler, Ensemble; Mark Banik Frank the Bartender, Ensemble; Michael Biren Steward, Constable, Ensemble, Asst. Dance Captain; Mary Callanan Mrs. Hopkins, Higgins’ Maid, Ensemble; Elena Camp Queen of Transylvania, Ensemble; Christopher Faison The “Loverly” Quartet, Higgins’ Butler, Lord Boxington, Footman, Ensemble; Nicole Ferguson Higgins’ Maid, Ensemble; Juliane Godfrey (FB) Higgins’ Maid, Ensemble; Colleen Grate Flower Girl, Higgins’ Maid, Ensemble; Patrick Kerr Harry, Ensemble; Brandon Leffler Charles, Mrs. Higgins’ Servant, Ensemble; Nathalie Marrable Ensemble; William Michals Hoxton Man, The “Loverly” Quartet, Jamie, Footman, Ensemble; Aisha Mitchell (FB) Ms. Clara Eynsford-Hill, Ensemble; Rommel Pierre O’Choa Mrs Higgins’ Servant, Ensemble; Kevin Quillon Ensemble; JoAnna Rhinehart Mrs. Eynsford-Hill, Ensemble; Samantha Sturm Lady Boxington, Hostess, Ensemble; Gerard M. Williams The “Loverly” Quartet, Steward, Constable, Ensemble; and Minami Yusui Ensemble, Dance Captain, Fight Captain. Swings were Kaitlyn Frank, George Psomas, Sarah Quinn Taylor, and Richard Riaz Yoder.
Music was provided by the My Fair Lady Orchestra (🌴 designates local orchestra): John Bell Music Director, Conductor; Luke Flood Assoc. Music Director, Keyboard; Dmitriy Melkumov Violin, Concertmaster; Mark O’Kain Percussion; 🌴 Elizabeth Johnson Violin 2; 🌴 Erik Rynearson Viola; 🌴 Ginger Murphy Cello; 🌴 Ian Walker Bass; 🌴 Richard Mitchell Flute, Piccolo, Clarinet; 🌴 Michele Forrest Oboe, English Horn; 🌴 Jeff Driskill Clarinet; 🌴 William May Bassoon; 🌴 John Fumo Trumpet 1; 🌴 Aaron Smith Trumpet 2; 🌴 Katie Faraudo French Horn 1; 🌴 Lizzie Upton French Horn 2; 🌴 Denis Jiron Trombone; 🌴 Amy Wilkins Harp; and 🌴 Mary Ekler Keyboard Sub. Music support and development was provided by Robert Russell Bennett Orchestrations 1894-1981; Philip J. Lang Orchestrations 1911-1986; Trude Rittmann Dance & Incidental Music Arrangements, 1908-2005; Ted Sperling Additional Arrangements; Talitha Fehr and David Lai Music Coordination; Josh Clayton Tour Orchestrations, Music Copying; and 🌴 Eric Heinly Orchestra Contractor. Orchestras in Los Angeles are always superb due to the talent in the city. Notable about this orchestra is that I didn’t recognize a lot of the names. In the past, there was a revolving group of artist that showed up in the local component of theatre orchestras. This time, there were a bunch of new faces. That’s always great to see.
Turning to the production side: The production was directed by Bartlett Sher and choreographed by Christopher Gattelli, assisted by Sari Ketter Assoc. Director and Mark Myars Assoc. Choreographer. Generally the direction was good and helped the actors bring the characters to life. There were some questionable choices, such as the aforementioned drag actors during “Get Me To The Church on Time”. The choreography was also generally good, but one really got the sense of the confines of the stage: endless circling back and forth that, when combined with the set design, left one a little dizzy. But My Fair Lady is not a strong dance show except in the ancillary Alfred P. Doolittle numbers and the formality of the Ascot Gavotte. Again, this probably goes back to Rex Harrison.
Michael Yeargan Sets provided a scenic design that both worked and was confining. The principle piece was Higgins’ study / front room / door and was set on a turntable. When it was rotating it tended to be a bit dizzying and disconcerting, especially if you were watching the actors close through binoculars. I understand the confines of a tour, but wondered if more traditional pieces might have worked better. At least there were no projections. Catherine Zuber Costumes were, to put it simply, sumptuous. From the dowdy looks of the lower class, to the beautiful gowns for Eliza, they were lovely. The atmosphere was set well by Donald Holder‘s lighting design and Marc Salzberg‘s sound. There were also no obvious microphone or amplification problems — often the curse of a touring company. Rounding out the production team were The Telsey Office Casting; Tom Watson Hair and Wigs; Elizabeth Smith Dialect Consultant; Donavan Dolan Production Stage Manager; Aaron Heeter Stage Manager; James Ogden II Asst Stage Manager; Jeff Mensch Company Manager; Kiara Bryant Asst. Company Manager; Karen Berry General Manager; and Troika Entertainment Tour Management. Notable absent from the program was any credit (either at the tour level or the BIH level) for a COVID Safety Officer. Nowadays, that’s a vital role and deserves acknowledgement and applause. Luckily, I found it on the travel page of the company website: Kudos to Jody Bogner Covid Safety Manager Workplace Compliance and Amy Katz COVID-19 Communications Director, Policies/Venue Relations/Testing for keeping the My Fair Lady company safe and healthy, and in turn, keeping the audience healthy.
One last thing, if the Broadway in Hollywood (FB) staff read this: The show needs a pre-show announcement about keeping your masks on during the show, and keeping any light emitting and sound emitting devices off. Audiences have been out of the live theatres for so long they have clearly forgotten the protocols, and mask reminders keep everyone safe.
The Broadway in Hollywood engagement of My Fair Lady continues until October 31, 2021. Tickets are available through Broadway in Hollywood (Ticketmaster). Discount tickets may be available through Goldstar (Los Angeles, MFL Tour in General) or other ticketing agencies.
Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre (or music) critic; I am, however, a regular theatre and music audience member (modulo the COVID break). I’ve been attending live theatre and concerts in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted (or I’ll make a donation to the theatre, in lieu of payment). I am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I currently subscribe at 5 Star Theatricals (FB), Broadway in Hollywood (FB), the Ahmanson Theatre (FB), and we have a membership at The Pasadena Playhouse (FB). We were subscribing at Actors Co-op (FB) and the Musical Theatre Guild (FB) prior to COVID; they have not yet resumed productions. We have also been subscribers at the Soraya/VPAC (FB), although we are waiting a year before we pick that up again. Through my theatre attendance I have made friends with cast, crew, and producers, but I do strive to not let those relationships color my writing (with one exception: when writing up children’s production, I focus on the positive — one gains nothing except bad karma by raking a child over the coals). I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups. Note to publicists or producers reading this: here’s my policy on taking comp tickets. Bottom-Line: Only for things of nominal value, like Fringe.
Wow. I haven’t done this in a while. (rummages through the calendar)
For right now, we’re pretty much sticking with shows that come as part of our subscriptions or are of interest through our memberships. That may change later in 2022. Later in October we will have Mamma Mia at 5 Star Theatricals (FB). November brings Hamilton at Broadway in Hollywood (FB) and Head over Heels at The Pasadena Playhouse (FB). December brings The Bands Visit at Broadway in Hollywood (FB) and A Christmas Carol at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB). Turning to 2022: January brings Everyone’s Talking About Jamie at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB). February brings Something Rotten at 5 Star Theatricals (FB); lastly, March brings The Lehman Trilogy at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB), and Ann at The Pasadena Playhouse (FB).
As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Better-Lemons, Footlights, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, On Stage 411 or that are sent to me by publicists or the venues themselves. Want to know how to attend lots of live stuff affordably? Take a look at my post on How to attend Live Theatre on a Budget (although I know it is outdated and need to update it). Want to learn about all the great theatre in Southern California? Read my post on how Los Angeles (and its environs) is the best area for theatre in the Country (again, I need to review this for the post-COVID theatre landscape)!