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A CurtainUp Berkshire Review
By Elyse Sommer
While My Fair Lady is one of the best ever musical adaptations of a play, Shaw's witty dialogue for this 100-year-old play still has the power to make its own music— at least not with a director and actors who make Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle come to life once again, along with the memorable characters around them.
This revival also looks great. Alexander Dodge's rotating set takes you to three gorgeously detailed locations , aptly lit by Philip Rosenberg. Costumers Gabriel Berry and Andrea Hood know how to do rags as well as elegant late Belle Epoque outfits.
Unless you've been in Rip Van Winkle mode you probably know the story. Shaw transformed the mythical Greek sculptor who created a perfect female out of unpromising raw material and fell in love with her, into a brilliant linguistics professor who makes a bet that he can not only teach a Cockney flower girl to speak English properly enough to sell flowers inside a shop instead of on the street, but that he can make her pass as a Duchess. But Liza's transformation is more far-reaching. She feels a growing need to establish her self-worth which prompts her to confront Higgins about his boorish, treatment of her as an object rather than a human being.
The result, at least as Shaw intended, is a sendup of the class system and prevailing views of women's roles as men's chattel. Not a teacher-pupil love story with Eliza marrying Higgins, but an ever engaging battle of wits. But from the start Shaw's rejection of marriage as the means to any woman's happily-ever-after trajectory was twisted to conform to conventional views of happy endings. Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree, the very first Henry added his own interpretive touch to Shaw's ending by throwing a bouquet to the musical, but no bouquet was needed to interpret that final request for Eliza to fetch his slippers as Higgins' way of acknowledging that he's become not just accustomed to but completely enamored of her charms.
Robert Sean Leonard and Heather Lind prove to be worthy heirs to the iconic names associated with the 1938 golden oldie film (Leslie Howard and Wendy Hiller) and the musical (Rex Harrison with Julie Andrews on stage, and Audrey Hepburn in the movie). Leonard, (though a seasoned stage actor, is probably best known to many for his role in the long running medical series House) manages to be both endearing, arrogant and boorish as the teacher who has a few things to learn from his pupil.
Lind, who has also gained name recognition via a TV series (Boardwalk Empire) is an enchanting and terrifically natural Eliza. The un-loving but powerful chemistry between Leonard and Lind couldn't be better, especially in the final confrontation.
Good as the two main players are, what makes this production so satisfying is the all-around excellence. Paxton Whitehead brings the required leavening wisdom and kindness to Higgins' Sherlock Holmes-like colleague Colonel Pickering.
Of the other women, Maureen Anderman is a standout as the Professor's sophisticated mum, who understands Eliza better than her son does. Patricia Conolly is less witty but also delightful as Mrs. Eynsford Hill who's the sort of woman who if she live today would be the last of her set to be able to use a cell phone.
And if you're looking for a scene stealer, there's Don Lee Sparks who, true to his name, sparkles as Eliza's mercenary father and hilarious opinionator on everything from class to morality. A special shout out to Berry and Hood's for his wedding outfit accented with lavender vest, gloves and spats.
As Shaw said in his prologue to the original edition "If the play makes the public aware that there are such people as phoneticians, and that they are among its most important people in England at present, it will serve its turn. And if this production brings back an appreciation of the well-made play, with fully dimensioned characters, and lots of quotable clever repartee, well then thank Nicholas Martin and his acting and design team for doing it — and actually adding a surprise twist by not only remaining true to the original script but paying attention to the sequel he wrote to justify his intended ending. I won't tell you what it is but it makes for a swell end to a still swell play.