Review: Feminist Eliza, Sexist Henry, Problematic “My Fair Lady”?

Whenever I go to the theater, I have a specific urge immediately after the curtain comes down. It is not to jump up, grab my coat, and rush out of the theater — as it seemed to be with much of the audience at the Orpheum Theatre after My Fair Lady, which runs a modern-attention-span-pushing 2 hours and 55 minutes. 

My urge is to accost strangers and ask what they thought of the show. Of course, I don’t do that, most of the time anyway. Instead, after basking in Lincoln Center Theater’s touring production of the classic musical, I headed home, plopped down on the couch, and scrolled through Instagram to see what other theatergoers thought.

One person suggested retiring the show. Another wrote that they didn’t like “the writing.” These are anomalies to be sure (most people use a play on “loverly” and call it a day), but they’re worth discussing, especially because the Star Tribune’s misguided review of the production labeled it “problematic,” and then wrote off two of composer Frederick Loewe and lyricist Alan Jay Lerner’s songs as “quaint, at best.” Someone hold my flower basket.

This particular My Fair Lady, directed by Bartlett Sher, is the least “problematic” major production of the show ever produced. I knew this going in, because I saw the original in New York a year ago, and the Star Tribune’s critic knows this as well. The traditional story follows lower-class, no-prospects Londoner Eliza Doolittle (played here by Shereen Ahmed, the first actor of Arab Muslim descent to play the role “in a major American production”) as she gets the cockney accent drilled out of her by upper-class, confirmed bachelor Professor Henry Higgins (Laird Mackintosh), who takes on the task partly because he’s a passionate phonetician and partly because he has a bet with houseguest Colonel Pickering to pass her off as a duchess at an embassy ball. 

The “problem” here? Henry is an unabashed misogynist who spends much of the show berating Eliza, and women in general. Naturally, some parts hit the audience differently in 2020 than they did 1956 when it premiered on Broadway. (When Henry finally got his comeuppance in the second act, the Orpheum erupted.)

But is that really a problem with this musical? There’s no question it’s a problem in real life, but in the context of My Fair Lady, and in particular this feminist reimagining, Henry’s unrelenting sexism is an essential piece of what makes this show more timely, not less.

Take for example the two aforementioned songs slandered as “quaint, at best,” Henry’s solos “I’m an Ordinary Man” and “Why Can’t a Woman Be More Like a Man.” The lyrics taken alone should certainly read as “problematic” (if they don’t, go buy Men Explain Things to Me from your local bookstore, stat), but lyrics don’t exist in a vacuum. Yes, Higgins extols the virtues of mankind and denigrates womankind in both songs, but he also breaks it up by offering comedic breaks (ironic contrast in the first, banter with Pickering in the second), and Mackintosh’s portrayal is deftly Jekyll-and-Hyde-ian. He convinces us of both Higgins’s ugliness and agreeableness in the span of a scene, whereas many other actors try to hide the character’s nasty bits. In flaunting them, we see a personality type many of us are familiar with: the man who is sometimes offensive, cruel, and giddily un-PC, but other times clever, funny, and, every so often, loving. And Loewe’s sometimes lush, sometimes thrilling, always catchy songs drive this contrast home more than words could ever do alone.

What do we do with that person, that “brute,” as Eliza rightly labels him? In George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, the play on which the musical is based, she does not end up with Henry. In the original My Fair Lady, she does. In Sher’s new touring production? I won’t spoil the particulars, but as you can probably guess, they once again part ways.

Even if they did stay together, the show itself would not necessarily be problematic. Who doesn’t know someone who has been in a toxic relationship? But instead of falling into the cliches of that trope, Ahmed as Eliza lays her emotional struggle between loving and loathing bare for all of us to see, especially in a knock-em-dead scene between the leads at Henry’s mother’s house which feels more like Shaw than Lerner (in fact, Sher did add text to this staging, both from Pygmalion and Shaw’s screenplay for a 1938 film version). 

On a lighter note, Ahmed also gave me the first goosebumps of the night in her opening line of “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly,” just one of the many timeless songs even My Fair Lady newcomers will recognize, including “The Rain in Spain,” “I Could Have Danced All Night,” and “On the Street Where You Live.” The latter gave me the second set of goosebumps, as performed by Sam Simahk, whose loosy-goosy portrayal of Freddy Eynsford-Hill reminded me of Daniel Radcliffe’s Harry Potter high on Felix Felicis.

There are plenty of other comparisons I’d love to draw out — Mackintosh seems to be channeling the Phantom of the Opera in his Higgins (after all, he’s played the opera ghost on Broadway); if Eliza is stuck in the Higgins mansion for six months, does that make Henry “The Bachelor” and Pickering Chris Harrison?; forget Satine in Moulin Rouge!, Eliza is the “Sparkling Diamond” in those jewels at the ball — but I’ll gladly put a pin in those thoughts for now. We’ve got plenty of time to continue the discussion. Contrary to what you may read in the paper, or on Instagram, My Fair Lady is not going anywhere as long as theater artists are willing to illuminate what has always been right there in the musical.

My Fair Lady

Orpheum Theatre
910 Hennepin Ave.
Minneapolis, MN 55403

Final performance: March 8
Buy tickets here

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