For a change agent, Professor Henry Higgins changes very little in “My Fair Lady,” whose lavish Broadway tour bowed Tuesday at the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis. That’s because this Edwardian master of phonetics and elocution is already high-class and powerful. Cocky and not particularly self-aware, Higgins would pooh-pooh the thought that he could learn a thing or two from anyone, especially someone from a lower class.
Uneducated flower girl Eliza Doolittle, on the other hand, transforms from what Higgins calls a “guttersnipe” into a proper lady. But it’s not just about language. Eliza’s soul opens up as she begins to realize her full potential. Education will do that. But does it have to come at such a high, and highly sexist, price?
Adapted from George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion,” the 1956 musical by lyricist and book writer Alan Jay Lerner and composer Frederick Loewe holds a soft spot in this critic’s heart. The musical is premised on a very American idea: that one’s birth is not one’s destiny, and that given a chance, people can rise.
Besides, this lover of language has been imprinted by indelible performances of the principal roles by both Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews on the one hand, and Jeremy Irons and Kiri Te Kanawa on the other.
Laird Mackintosh and Shereen Ahmed, who play Higgins and Eliza in director Bartlett Sher’s “woke” 2018 revival, bring lots of gifts to their roles. Mackintosh, a charismatic singer and actor, uses wit and charm to try to mute Higgins’ many objectionable edges. No matter how much charisma he injects into songs such as “I’m an Ordinary Man” and “Why Can’t a Woman Be More Like a Man,” they are quaint, at best.
Mackintosh is much more affecting in “The Rain in Spain” and “I Could Have Danced All Night,” songs with a sweet romantic sweep (John Bell conducts the lush orchestra).
But it is Ahmed’s Eliza who carries the evening. When we first meet her, her Cockney accent is so thick, it’s like she’s eating crushed cabbage, which is what Higgins calls her. Ahmed takes us on Eliza’s journey with skill, delivering in a magnificent, affecting soprano that gives us Eliza’s dreaming (“Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?”), determination (“Just You Wait”) and poignant triumph (“Without You”). Higgins fancies himself an artist, and his projects are clay. Ahmed shows Eliza’s fight for her humanity and her voice. And the character has slightly more agency than in the past — throwing slippers and leaving in the face of his unchanging, abusive language.
Eliza’s clothes also show her transformation and Ahmed slays in Catherine Zuber’s Tony-winning costumes.
“Fair Lady” boasts eye-catching design, including Michael Yeargan’s turntable set evocatively lit by Donald Holder. Marc Salzberg’s effective sound design includes a horse race at Ascot as hoofs go from one side of the Orpheum to the other in a top-notch production whose excellent cast includes Adam Grupper, a standout as Eliza’s father; Sam Simahk, who infuses Eliza’s smitten courter, Freddy, with giddiness and joy; and Patrick Kerr as the astute and wry Colonel Pickering. All help to make “Fair Lady” gorgeous, even it feels like gilding a problematic heirloom.