I’ve had a thirst for a gin-and-tonic since seeing “My Fair Lady” at the Guthrie on Friday night. That fizzy and fragrant cocktail — the martini’s frivolous, summer cousin — embodies the spirit of Joe Dowling’s crisp and nicely proper staging. Like the drink, this “Fair Lady” will fill your head for an evening and whisper away in the morning.
The show is in that handful that people trumpet as, “The perfect musical.” No argument here. Frederick Loewe’s score gorgeously underpins Alan Jay Lerner’s adaptation of Shaw’s “Pygmalion.” The hummable songs are legion; the story big and human.
The Guthrie’s staging (designed by Walt Spangler) sprawls out in several London locations: the big clean stone exteriors at Prof. Henry Wiggins Wimpole Street address; Higgins’ study, defined by a spiral staircase to die for, and the hard precincts where Eliza Doolittle and her mates scratch out a life.
Through the swirl of buskers and beggars in Covent Garden, Shaw’s heroine, Eliza, hawks flowers and dreams of getting her own shop. The phoneticist Higgins, fascinated by her Cockney spunk, bets he can transform Eliza into a princess. He does, and in the bargain, Higgins shatters his own emotional armor and becomes equally changed.
Dowling largely lets the work speak for itself with a clear understanding of the class dynamics in Shaw’s London. Andrew Cooke has his orchestra briskly paced and costumer Fabio Toblini plops the most audacious hats — the size of a bushel basket — on the heads of these Edwardian society women.
The cast sings and dances well, though Joe Chvala’s choreography is restrained at the start and takes time to evolve. Gladly, Chvala’s eye and some great, hard work by the cast stop the show in “Get Me to the Church on Time.”
Tyler Michaels, his voice ringing like a bell as Freddy Eynsford-Hill, achieves the same result as he glides effortlessly through an electric performance of “On the Street Where You Live.”
Complementing Michaels’ effervescence among the supporting roles is Angela Timberman’s long-suffering Mrs. Pearce and Donald Corren’s Doolittle, a cocksure drunk possessed of a keen and conniving mind. Tony Sheldon plays Colonel Pickering with droll reserve, slightly stiff and brushed up nice and clean.
Jeff McCarthy’s Higgins is supremely confident in himself, blunt and savage in his pronouncements, yet sincere in his mission to raise society’s standards. What’s wrong with trying to better oneself? McCarthy inherits the Rex Harrison patter throughout the score (no man can escape) although we occasionally get to hear his fine singing voice.
The fair lady of the title is a feisty street urchin in actor Helen Anker’s hands. “Fair Lady” productions achieve greatness — not mere excellence — with an Eliza who feasts on the richly lyrical beauty of Loewe’s music.
“I Could Have Danced All Night,” for example, should knock us out of our seats. Anker’s voice, merely adequate, does not deliver that signature moment.
A bracing refreshment, cool and elegant that won’t leave you woozy with excitement? Yes, with a lime wedge, please.