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My Politically Correct Lady

John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
12/17/2019 -  & December 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 26, 27, 28, 29, 31, 2019, January 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 14, 15*, 16, 17, 18, 19, 2020
Frederick Loewe: My Fair Lady
Shereen Ahmed (Eliza Doolittle), Sam Simahk (Freddy Eynsford-Hill), JoAnna Rhinehart (Mrs. Eynsford-Hill), Fana Tesfagiorgis (Clara Eynsford-Hill), Kevin Pariseau (Colonel Pickering), Laird Mackintosh (Professor Henry Higgins), Adam Grupper (Alfred P. Doolittle), Gayton Scott (Mrs. Pearce), Leslie Alexander (Mrs. Higgins), Mark Aldrich (Lord Boxington), Anne Brummel (Lady Boxington), Wade McCollum (Professor Zoltan Karpathy)
John Bell (conductor)
Bartlett Sher (director), Michael Yeargan (sets), Catherine Zuber (costumes), Donald Holder (lights), Trude Rittmann (choreography)

S. Simahk, S. Ahmed, K. Pariseau, L. Alexander (© Joan Marcus)

The Christmas season brings plenty of holiday treats to Washington, but with the Washington National Opera on hiatus, the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts’s Opera House – the complex’s largest theater – traditionally hosts a blockbuster musical. This year the choice fell to the touring company of Bartlett Sher’s revival of Lerner and Loewe’s My Fair Lady, which originated in March 2018 at New York’s Lincoln Center Theater.

Sher had big shoes to fill. The original production of 1956, a musical adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion, legendarily starred Julie Andrews and Rex Harrison. It ran for six and a half years, racking up more performances and earning greater receipts than any other musical up until that time. It became forever preserved in the 1964 film version, with Harrison paired with the equally iconic Audrey Hepburn. Any new effort was bound to invite comparison to the original, to say nothing of the film, and no revival ever even came close to the initial success. Enhancing the original production’s shadow at this performance I was delighted to be in the company of two avid theatergoers who saw it in their youth and retained vivid memories, even at a distance of 64 years.

Sher seemed to take this legacy as a challenge to make My Fair Lady different in some way, even a “show for our times” marked by new sensibilities about gender and femininity. The sets and costumes, by Michael Yeargan and Catherine Zuber, respectively, are sumptuously picturesque in their depiction of all the expected London locales. A rotating stage allows for quick and highly efficient changes of scene. The classic score was lovingly led under the direction of John Bell, and the classic songs were unadulterated, at least in words.

So what could go wrong? For some people, nothing. Familiar representational sets and classic musical numbers were all they needed. But the imprint of modern times was unavoidable, sometimes merely gratuitous, but often rather vulgar. The most striking difference comes at the very end. Originally, the transformed Eliza transcends her identity crisis after phonetics lessons elevate her from cockney flower girl to elegant lady. She forgives Higgins’s tempers and returns to him to the strains of “I Could Have Danced All Night.” To today’s feminist imagination, this “happy ending” is at best saccharine and at worst an unforgiveable descent into co-dependency. Sher’s revised ending has Eliza stride confidently off the set, leaving Higgins baffled at how he will face life without her. What, though, is the message? Eliza’s story is not of a woman overcoming unjust obstacles to find her own voice, or even accent (and who needs another show like that?), but a transformational tale of a woman whose life is transformed by benefiting from a man’s tutelage, however egotistical. Higgins’s spouting about her ingratitude can make him look the perfect ass, but if she abandons him forever for nothing more than a display of slipper-seeking insensitivity after a ball, has she not merely used and discarded him? Do we really want to tell the preteen girls in the audience, who are already bombarded with the importance of “doing it on your own,” that using a man for his time, knowledge, and resources is a valid path to success, after which he may be disposed of the moment he becomes inconvenient? For the health of a society already deeply mired in narcissism – and where, thanks to #MeToo and Title IX, Higgins’s real life male professorial counterparts are now three times more likely to refuse to mentor female students – I certainly hope not a single young lady took that message seriously.

And how has Eliza answered her own question, “What is to become of me?” What, indeed? In Shaw’s Pygmalion she at least marries Freddy Eynsford-Hill and, as a couple, they remain on the friendliest terms with Higgins and Pickering, whose domestic arrangement does not change and who are always there, like surrogate parents, to help them out. Here she has her transformation and develops a more evolved idea of how she feels she should be treated, but what will the world do to her in the absence of everything that normally goes along with a posh accent? Six, two, and even Higgins is right and she will be back in Covent Garden selling flowers again a week later. Will whoever finds her there take her in or throw the baggage out? If he learns anything of her history with Higgins, I suspect the latter. The message, then, is not a proud expression of feminine strength, but an eerie reflection of the new tension between feminist expectation – where all is possible for a woman – and its constant shadowing by fragility – where every woman, no matter how “strong” and however forcefully exhorted to strength, is simultaneously weak enough to languish in potential victimhood.

This warped Eliza’s only saving grace was the Egyptian-American actress Shereen Ahmed, an ingenue who successfully auditioned for a role in the New York production’s ensemble and stayed with the show with enough talent and determination to rise to the top of the cast. Perhaps ironically given the production’s feminist tendency, it was Ahmed’s poised acting and splendid musical performance that allowed Eliza to upstage the men in her life. Laird Mackintosh’s Higgins was dull and charmless. He sang more melodically than Harrison’s patter, but his acting lacked the irascible charm and devilish wit that a believable Higgins needs. This version of the character is such a bore that it is a wonder anyone bothers with him. One could almost forgive Eliza for walking away at the end, wondering only why she did not do so sooner. There was also no excuse for Mackintosh’s muddled British accent, which was surprisingly inept for a show that relies so fundamentally on the role of accents in elaborating Shavian social commentary. Kevin Pariseau’s Pickering was a fine foil to what Higgins should have been, but only reminded us of what this Higgins was lacking. Adam Grupper came closest to his filmic counterpart, Stanley Holloway, in portraying Alfred P. Doolittle’s exuberant nihilism. But here, too, contemporary gender issues were intrusive. “I’m Getting Married in the Morning” is easily the show’s strongest and most memorable number. To have its effect, it had utterly no need for a lengthy gender-bending burlesque show with simulated sex acts and male dancers doing the can-can. Equally, the suffragette parade that ironically marches through “With a Little Bit of Luck” is there to highlight the Doolittle’s roguish rejection of decency. So why does one of them have to yell “Votes for Women!,” as though women have not had votes in either the United States of the United Kingdom for the past century? The only innovation that added something was the ensemble’s coolly collected performance of the “Ascot Gavotte,” which was more frigid here than in Cecil Beaton’s original and more striking rendition.

Paul du Quenoy



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