OKLAHOMA CITY (Free Press) — When Bartlett “Bart” Sher, one of the most acclaimed and respected directors in modern theater, premiered his vision of a rousing, colorful, and lavishly-staged “My Fair Lady” at Broadway’s Lincoln Center Theater in 2018, the accolades and glowing reviews began pouring in immediately.
After more than 500 performances, the production closed on Broadway, assembled a touring cast and company, and took the show on the road near the end of 2019, growing palpable excitement and anticipation across the country in each of the tours planned stops.
And then, of course, COVID hit and shut everything down indefinitely.
Now, with theaters finally reopened, and with OKC’s own Civic Center requiring both proof-of-vaccination and round-the-clock masking, the curtain can finally rise on this fully wonderful and gorgeously-conceived production right here in Oklahoma.
With its original inspiration, George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion,” now more than a century old, and the first stage productions of Lerner and Loewe’s legendary musical 65 years gone, the story of “My Fair Lady” is as well-known, and well-loved, as any in the English language.
Indeed, the English language itself is the crux of the entire tale, as pompous, demanding linguist Professor Henry Higgins places a bet that he can transform the uneducated Cockney flower-seller Eliza Doolittle into a member of high society just by teaching her to speak “proper” English.
The role of Eliza has long been one of the most beloved of all musical theater and has spawned a number of massively popular turns, most notably including Julie Andrews’ origination of the role on Broadway and, of course, Audrey Hepburn’s unforgettable film performance in 1964.
For Sher’s version, it was clear early on that Eliza would be presented not as a malleable and impressionable street girl, but as an already fully-formed and strong-willed young woman with a fiery disposition and very little patience for insult. A worthy opponent for Higgins’ attitude. This was quickly evident in the casting of American film and TV veteran Lauren Ambrose (Six Feet Under, American Beauty) in the role for the original 2018 Broadway run.
Ambrose brought an automatic world-weariness to the character, projecting an air of hardened street life and exasperation that is easily inherent to the role, but that is generally missing from more doe-eyed performances like Hepburn’s.
But for the touring production that OKC audiences will witness, Eliza is performed by rising star Shereen Ahmed, whose turn in the role is nothing short of pitch-perfect and so deeply multi-layered as to breathe entirely new life into the character.
Ahmed so perfectly and delicately toes the line between Ambrose’s world-weariness and Hepburn’s softer naivete that she’s able to convey both elements at times simultaneously. Ahmed’s Eliza is sad. She doesn’t impart an inherent anger or exhaustion at the world, yet she doesn’t ever appear lost or exploitably innocent either. There’s a deep, earned sadness to Ahmed’s portrayal that underscores all of her combative outbursts and longing torch songs alike.
When Ahmed’s Eliza finally breaks into the all-time classic “I Could Have Danced All Night,” she does so with such believable confusion as if her joy in that moment is not just something that she’d convinced herself she’d never experience, but something that she never even knew could be possible.
The most beautiful and affecting moment of the night comes right after the ornate “Embassy Ball” scene at the opening of the play’s second act. Ahmed moves quietly to one side of the stage, the music dies out, and among only silence, she presents the audience with a single, wordless expression conveying everything from the ecstatic joy of the night’s revels, to the sudden realization that her new life may be ending, to the sinking understanding that she’s only been a pawn in a man’s game. She does it all in a silent moment, the scenery changing behind her.
Of course, none of this is to even mention her incredible singing abilities, which elevate the songs here to near-opera, or her shocking talent for so believably slipping in and out of different accents and dialects, one of the most daunting aspects of the Eliza character for any actress.
It’s also worth noting the fact that Ahmed, as an Arab American, is the first woman of color to ever portray Eliza, both on Broadway and on London’s West End. In an era of the theater skewing, reconsidering, and at times rewriting classic pieces to better reflect our current world, there is perhaps no better modern statement than presenting this story wholly unchanged, but with a young Arab woman being manipulated and used as a plaything for wealthy, white, and decidedly Western men.
And speaking of manipulative, wealthy men, Laird Mackintosh’s Higgins gives us the perfect pretentious foil to Ahmed’s emotional earnestness. His take on the pompous professor comes across much less aloof and narrow-minded in his comfortable wealth and intellect, and more bluntly misogynistic and even flatly abusive. Whereas other actors in the role may soften Higgins’ character a bit by playing his abrasiveness more for laughs, Mackintosh seems to edge more and more into villainous territory at times by committing so forcefully to the sexism, classism, and xenophobia of the character.
All of this would make his slight turns near the story’s conclusion less acceptable if not for Mackintosh’s ability to play so confused by his own emotions and desires. He’s able to sell his own shocked reaction at the unexpected depth of his heart just as well as Ahmed’s surprise at her own happiness earlier.
When Eliza returns and gently touches his face with a sad, knowing smile, it seems not like a realization that this difficult man has a concealed depth that he doesn’t know how to express, but like a final understanding that so much of the world is immovable, that growth is singular, and that those that change you may unfortunately never change themselves.
These two monumental performances anchor the emotional core of “My Fair Lady” beneath a breathtaking and vibrant production. The sets are massive and stunningly detailed, with huge moveable backdrops showcasing the stone columns, iron fences, and crowded pubs of turn-of-the-century London, all with a believable weight and presence.
There is no more impressive set, however, than Higgins’ house, a mammoth, two-story manor constructed in the round on a gigantic turnstile. As characters move from room to room, in certain doors and out of others, the entire set spins silently, keeping pace with the performers. The design and engineering of the staging itself warrants no less applause than the emotional weight of the storytelling or the unquestionably impressive vocal performances of the entire cast.
This touring production of “My Fair Lady,” presented by The Lincoln Center Theater Productions and OKC Broadway, truly gives OKC audiences the opportunity to experience the full magic of Broadway-level theater, both in the caliber of performance and in the sheer size and scope of the production itself.
It’s an unbeatable way to restart the theater community in OKC. If you’ve ever been a fan of musical theater, you owe it to yourself to see this one before it moves on.
“My Fair Lady” is appearing at Civic Center Music Hall now through October 3rd. For tickets, showtimes, and other information, visit okcciviccenter.com or okcbroadway.com.
Last Updated September 29, 2021, 5:10 PM by Brett Dickerson – Editor