My Fair Lady — Image via guthrietheater.org

My Fair Lady

Guthrie Theater
Directed by Joe Dowling

My Fair Lady is deservedly one of the best-loved and most enduring works in the musical theater canon, integrating the witty satire and didactic substance of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion with the energy and exuberance of the musical genre. The one major flaw in Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe‘s original version — repeated in George Cukor’s classic film — is the incongruous “romantic” ending that was tacked on to appease 1950s audiences. Thankfully, in their current production, the Guthrie Theater and director Joe Dowling dispense with this ending in favor of something much more enigmatic and open to interpretation.

My Fair Lady — Image via guthrietheater.orgThe result is a production that sets aside any notions of developing romance to focus squarely on the parallel transformations of the musical’s two main characters: Eliza Doolittle (Helen Anker), the Cockney flower girl who seeks to improve her station by shedding her lower-class accent, and Henry Higgins (Jeff McCarthy), the wealthy and misanthropic professor who agrees to teach her in order to demonstrate the superiority of his methods. Henry, evidently a fan of Aristotle, believes virtue is a habit that can be acquired through rigorous practice, whereas Eliza (more of a Platonist, perhaps) is convinced of her innate goodness and merely wants to adjust the outer trappings to match it. The Guthrie’s rendition does an excellent job of demonstrating how these differing perspectives shape the characters’ respective development over the course of the show. After many days and nights of frustrating drills, we finally see something click for Eliza when Henry, in a rare poetic moment, kindles her fighting spirit. Henry, on the other hand, is constrained by his outlook on life when Eliza’s eventual breaking free leaves him with feelings he can only describe as having “grown accustomed to her face.” And then, for further counterpoint, there is Eliza’s alcoholic father, Alfred (Donald Corren), a vulgar materialist who believes morality is dictated by one’s social position — and who suffers for that belief once he inadvertently enters the middle class.

My Fair Lady — Image via guthrietheater.orgOf course, My Fair Lady is a musical, not a philosophy lecture, but there is a certain pleasure in seeing these schemes worked out in an entertaining and ultimately very human way, which Dowling’s production largely accomplishes. The Guthrie’s characteristic hamminess is definitely present, but it does not get in the way (except perhaps when McCarthy mimes the lyrics to “I’m an Ordinary Man,” which doesn’t seem like something Henry Higgins would do). Anker and Tyler Michaels (as Eliza’s wellborn admirer Freddy) turn in memorable renditions of the show’s big lyrical numbers “I Could Have Danced All Night” and “On the Street Where You Live,” while McCarthy deftly executes the talk-singing pieces written for the tonally challenged Rex Harrison.

After skipping a year in its tradition of big summer musicals, the Guthrie has pulled off a success, maintaining just the right balance of entertainment, humanity, and substance. My Fair Lady plays on the Wurtele Thrust Stage through August 31.

Photos by Joan Marcus

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Eric Prindle

administers Bad Entertainment. He is also an attorney who leads a team of legal marketing copywriters at FindLaw. He is not Eric Prindle, the mixed martial arts fighter.