Late in My Fair Lady, Eliza Doolittle, escaping from Professor Higgins’ tyranny, leaves his dwelling to discover that Freddy Eynsford-Hill is still outside singing “On the Street Where You Live,” apparently having permanently attached himself to Higgins’ front stoop. Such are the altogether not attractive romantic options that the play affords to its leading lady. And in the Lincoln Center’s still very entertaining touring version of the show, now playing at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, the choices somehow manage to be even worse than usual.
This production and its director, Bartlett Sher, give us an Eliza, played by the utterly amazing Shereen Ahmed, who is so far above both of these caricatured and infantilized men that it’s difficult to imagine any audience member actually wanting her to end up with either of them. Under Sher, Laird Mackintosh’s Higgins retains the arrogance and cruelty the character has always had while adding an additional flavor of childishness that completely fails to mitigate his worst aspects and renders him even more of a cartoon figure than ever. (Leslie Alexander’s note-perfect Mrs. Higgins gets a great laugh with her “Good for you, Eliza,” after the former flower girl puts Henry in his place.) Meanwhile, Sam Simahk’s simpy Freddy, throwing himself repeatedly at her in his absurdly callow way, is so far from the romantic ideal that, were she to follow through on her threat to Higgins that she would marry the boy, she might possibly be accused of robbing the cradle.
In sharp contrast to both men is Ahmed’s Eliza, who is determined and forceful as she demands that anyone who wants to love her “Show Me” instead of giving her merely “words, words, words.” Eliza’s streetside tirade literally throws Freddy around like the absolute lightweight that he is. When Higgins later calls her threat to marry the boy “an infantile idea,” he has never been more correct (though of course he shows no sense of irony at all). The fact is, though, that it isn’t even clear that she wants to: she actually tells him, “I’ll marry Freddy, I will, as soon as he’s able to support me.” Given what we can glean about Mr. Eynsford-Hill, she’s in no real danger of that.
So, OK, then, now that I have dumped all over the only “romantic” options—I mean, Kevin Pariseau’s enjoyable Col. Pickering is a bit too old—why do I still call the play entertaining? Well, no matter how Sher’s characterizations have tweaked it, the Lerner and Lowe musical, based on George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, is still a lot of fun to watch. Huge production numbers like “I’m Getting Married in the Morning” (performed here by Martin Fisher as Eliza’s proudly and stubbornly deadbeat dad—why are all of the men in her life so far from the ideals that Higgins sings about in “A Hymn to Him?”—along with a wonderfully lively ensemble inventively choreographed by Christopher Gattelli) and its opposite number, “Ascot Gavotte,” are brilliantly crowd-pleasing. The sets here, designed by Michael Yeargan, and the costumes, including one for Eliza that elicited an unfortunately abortive applause from the opening night audience—though I think it would have been well deserved by designer Catherine Zuber—are expensive-looking and simply outstanding, and those sets are even hiding surprises.
And the music? Well, other than “Get Me to the Church,” which I found extremely hard to understand (so I just enjoyed the spectacle, which includes a pre-wedding drag show), it simply couldn’t be better. Ahmed’s voice is as perfect as her presence: both are hitherto-hidden joys anyone who sees this show will instantly know should not remain hidden for long; she is a woman who deserves to, and I predict will, be on Broadway. I have never been moved to do this before, but I’m serious: you must see her for yourself. So here is a video of her singing a song from the show. I think you’ll agree that, if anything, I’m understating her talent.
I absolutely recommend that you see this production, playing through July 10, because this is going to be the birth of a star. As for the rest, it’s fun and you’ll enjoy it, but It’s Eliza that runs away with the show.