Review: My Fair Lady

Simon Hale is enchanted by a timeless classic at Birmingham Hippodrome.

It may have been pure coincidence that the Lincoln Center Theatre’s multi-award-winning touring production of My Fair Lady opened at Birmingham Hippodrome on International Women’s Day. But a poor Cockney flower seller’s desire to ‘better’ herself, if only given the chance, is as relevant today as in 1913 when George Bernard Shaw wrote the play on which the musical is based.

For Eliza Doolittle her opportunity arrives one night on a street outside a theatre when she literally bumps into opera-goer Henry Higgins, a phonetics professor who goes on to wager with his friend and fellow linguist Colonel Pickering that he can transform her into his idea of a ‘lady’.

Opening night also provided a big opportunity for understudy Rebekah Lowings, who was called on to play Eliza in this revival of this Lerner and Loewe stage musical, which in turn spawned
the Oscar-winning film version of My Fair Lady starring Audrey Hepburn.

Lowings’ performance was as engaging as Hepburn’s as she pulled off this demanding role with aplomb. With acting and singing skills of the highest quality, her Eliza conveyed all the feistiness as well as the subtle hint of romance the role requires in her tempestuous relationship with Higgins.

Michael D. Xavier is the perfect Higgins, the crusty confirmed bachelor whose misogynistic insults (“guttersnipe” and “hussy” among them) show he is happy only in the company of men like Pickering (John Middleton) to whom he sings Why Can’t a Woman Be More Like a Man?

Director Bartlett Sher brings out Shaw’s respect for powerful women, with strong performances by Heather Jackson as Higgins’ mother and by opera singer Lesley Garrett as his housekeeper Mrs Pearce. You sense he would be unable to cope with life without them.

In a show with no weak links, Adam Woodyatt (best known as Ian Beale in Eastenders) turns in a performance of star quality as Eliza’s dustman father Alfred P. Doolittle. Mocking the ‘middle-class morality’ of the day in which respectability was the ultimate virtue, he makes his own way there with a superb song and dance routine to the song Get Me to the Church on Time.

All the musical numbers, including such memorable songs as Wouldn’t It Be Loverly, The Rain in Spain and I Could Have Danced All Night are performed expertly to the Loewe score by an excellent live orchestra conducted by Alex Parker.

The production also relies on a revolving set brilliantly designed by Michael Yeargan to represent Higgins’ home, with different parts for different scenes shown almost seamlessly. The beautiful Edwardian costumes, designed by Catherine Zuber, complete the authentic period feel.

This is a show that is not to be missed.

My Fair Lady is in performance at Birmingham Hippodrome until Sunday, March 19th.

Pics – Marc Brenner.