… the story of a story …

For most of the time, this My Fair Lady is so good it made me feel that this wonderful show was even more marvelous than I thought.  I saw new things in it!  It was thrilling!  The production, however, does something really disappointing in changing the ending.  It’s easy to see why they did it – but, they shouldn’t have!

According to the ancient myth, Pygmalion was a sculptor who could never find the right woman until he carved in ivory a sculpture of a beautiful woman and having created her form, was so filled with passionate desire for her that he kissed her.  With his kiss – and thanks to intervention from the goddess Aphrodite — he felt the lips of the ivory image grow warm, the cheeks became rosy, the image took on the hues and feel of human flesh – she became alive and, yes, they lived happily ever after.

With some transformations of his own, George Bernard Shaw took up the myth in his delightful play, Pygmalion, moving the story to early 20th century London, turning the sculptor into persnickety Henry Higgins, an expert on the English language, and turning the sculptor’s created beloved into Eliza Doolittle, a low-class girl with cockney speech eking out a living selling flowers who Higgins’ transforms through his teaching into an elegant woman with upper class speech and elegance, whereupon he falls in love with her.

My Fair Lady, by Alan Jay Lerner (book and lyrics) and Frederick Loewe (composer) is based on Shaw’s Pygmalion.  The authors draw upon Shaw’s characters and dialog, create brilliant transpositions of scenes, new wit, and songs that capture the characters, their situations and their emotions with breathtaking aptness, humor and beauty.

For most of the time, this My Fair Lady is so good it made me feel that this wonderful show was even more marvelous than I thought.  I saw new things in it!  It was thrilling!  The production, however, does something really disappointing in changing the ending.  It’s easy to see why they did it – but, they shouldn’t have!  The ending is a victim of good intentions, and takes much of the show with it.

Selling flowers around Covent Garden Theater, Eliza Doolittle lets out a howl when her flowers are toppled by the careless rich, bringing her – and her “dreadful” cockney vowels, to the notice of Professor Henry Higgins, the expert on English language.  Higgins (Paul Alexander Noland), disdainful at how most of the English speak (that song:  “Why Can’t The English learn to speak.  These verbal class distinctions by now should be extinct”), remarks to Colonel Pickering (Howard McGillin) that with training, he could transform even this wretched girl’s speech into upper class English.  No fool Eliza:  she arrives at his house the next day wanting lessons so she can own a flower shop. Higgins bets with Pickering that with his training he’ll be able to pass her off as a princess.  Thus begins Eliza’s training in “proper English”.

The wonderful scene couldn’t be done better.  Kelli Barrett is an enchanting Eliza with a beautiful singing voice (“Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?”) and piquant acting.  Nolan is an appealing stuffed shirt with a fine voice as Higgins.   Pickering (McGllin) is the perfect straight-backed tweedy Englishman.   And it’s our good luck that John O’Creagh as Eliza’s boozing “amoral” father (“With A Little Bit Of Luck”) couldn’t be better. Pickering is the perfect tall straight perfect Englishman.

The show continues pitch-perfect, delicious, all one wants.  True, the set, a sort of amphitheater embracing the stage built in dark wood, is oddly abstract and dark but there’s so much wonderful, one can hardly take time to think about that.  Higgins pushes Eliza to the extremes of endurance and Eliza has the gumption and determination to keep trying, to keep working.  Pickering, and Higgins housekeeper Mrs. Pearce (Karen Murphy) attempt to moderate the strain on her but Higgins isn’t about to soften his regime.   Anyhow, they’re two of a pair, aren’t they? – both unstoppable, working through the night.   Until that marvelous moment comes when Eliza gets it!

It’s all about vowels.  She finally in a sort of flash (hard won flash) gets them right (“The Rain In Spain”), they are thrilled and so are we by the celebratory explosion of joy, they are in love – he may not know it but she does (“I Could Have Danced All Night”) and they try her new speech and ladylike poise at the tony horse races at Ascot in one of the funniest and most moving scenes in all musical theater.

Is the elegant, beautifully speaking Eliza taken for a princess at the ball?  Guess.  But the course of true love never runs smooth (in contrast with the myth), and Shaw introduced a clever and telling bump in the road.  It has to do with how when success finally arrives, the self-centered Higgins and Pickering, congratulate themselves (You Did It”) and it never occurs to them to congratulate the hard-working, hard-studying Liza.  And Liza is no sculptor’s passive ideal – she’s furious.

Now here’s where the trouble with this production comes in.  The ending is forced, through some mumbo-jumbo of a kind of dance abstraction, into a feminist interpretation that disappointingly out of tune with the rest   Michael Arden, the talented director who engaged so many of the scenes with genuine emotion, is quoted in the program notes as speaking of the sexist character of My Fair Lady and that he felt the need to “bring something new to it, to make it feel like a production for today.”  But this something new looks doesn’t seem to grow organically from all we’ve seen before but feels tacked on. And what downer.  Speaking of myths, the last lines of dialog are squeezed into a Procrustean  feminist bed, and it hurts.

The ending is a victim of good intentions.  The aura of joy dissipates.  One doesn’t leave humming.  As one who enjoys realism as well as romance in theater, tragedy as well as comedy, I don’t think you have to leave theater humming and smiling.  But I think one should leave My Fair Lady humming.

This production has a wonderful cast, with great directing of a stupendous show … and an ending that makes My Fair Lady a victim of good intentions.