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My Fair Lady, Lightly Updated, Graces The Stage

A new production of the classic musical retains all the charm of the original while granting Eliza Doolittle more dignity than she's ever had.

/Broadway Grand Rapids

Ovid writes of a sculptor who, "offended by the failings that nature gave the female heart," shunned the company of women until, having carved a beautiful statue, he found himself in love. A statue isn't a woman, of course. Still, he imagined that the stone he held was flesh, and loosened his grip so that he might not bruise his beloved. He gave the statue "gifts that please girls, shells and polished pebbles, little birds, and many-coloured flowers, lilies and tinted beads, and the Heliades' amber tears, that drip from the trees." The goddess Venus, seeing his devotion, brought the statue to life.

From this ancient and rather sour material, George Bernard Shaw carved his play Pygmalion. Named after the mythological sculptor, it told the story of Eliza Doolittle, a poverty-stricken young woman who survived by selling flowers on the streets of London, and Henry Higgins, the brilliant and cold linguist who declared on a whim that, by teaching her the ways that the upper crust behave and speak, he could turn her into someone fit for the highest company. 

Shaw's play, a classic, led to another classic: My Fair Lady. The musical, which debuted in 1956, starred a young Julie Andrews. Critically and commercially successful, it was the longest-running musical to date. In 1964, a hugely successful film version starring Audrey Hepburn was released. In 2018, a new production directed by Bartlett Sher debuted on Broadway. It is this production, currently touring, which is onstage via Broadway Grand Rapids through April 16th.

Eliza Doolittle (played by Madeline Powell) begins as a proud, suspicious young woman, scrabbling to survive and always alert to the possibility of an opportunity or an insult. She's enraged to discover that her words are being taken down by a man, Henry Higgins (Jonathan Grunert), who she takes to be a police officer but who is, in fact, a professor of linguistics and clearly a genius. After hearing someone speak, he's capable of determining their origins, sometimes even with a couple of streets.

See, that was the truth of England then, and perhaps to a certain extent even now: your voice gave you away. 

Higgins, having demonstrated his brilliance, leaves Eliza to her life (but not before giving her a handful of coins whose value makes little difference to him but quite a bit to her). Not only that, he left her with a dream: a dream that he might teach her to speak, dress, and behave so well that she could leave her cramped world and enter one with plenty of coal, chocolate, and love ("Wouldn't It Be Loverly?").

Soon, she shows up at his well-appointed home, looking to purchase his instruction. Higgins doesn't need her money (which, of course, he gave to her), but he does need a challenge. He decides to undertake it, instructing a servant to burn Doolittle's clothing, scrub her clean, and put her in something suitable for a lady. Only then can he begin to work on the real challenge: her voice.

Powell's at her best in these early scenes, wringing every bit of comedy out of Doolittle's feral vowels and tone while still infusing her with the dignity that those around her are too blind to see. Grunert is a perfect foil, combining boyish energy and optimism with a callous disregard for the woman whose life he's turning upside-down. His character may be a song played on fewer notes, but each is played perfectly.

It isn't easy, but Higgins gets her there. "The Rain In Spain," the song that represents her breakthrough, has become immortal, although it works best within the context of the show. By contrast, "I Could Have Danced All Night" works anywhere. It's a triumph of melody. The show is generous with its music, handing out fine songs to many characters (including Eliza's reprobate of a father, whose "With A Little Bit of Luck" will play in your head long after you've left the theater). 

It's been over sixty-five years since the musical debuted, and times have changed -- a fact recognized by the way this production ends. While I won't spoil the ending, I can acknowledge that it succeeds in giving Eliza her due, but fails as art -- changing the flow of the play in the same way that a dam changes the flow of a river (which is to say, unnaturally). Still, the original ending never worked particularly well, either. If you have to err, it's no shame to err on the side of dignity.

In Ovid's telling of the myth of Pygmalion, we learn nothing of the statue but that she was beautiful. Eliza Doolittle's beautiful, too, but she's much more than that, something grime and an untrained voice should never have been able to obscure. A hundred years from now, My Fair Lady will still be making that point, and doing so with humor, clarity, and grace. 

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