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'I could have danced all night' at Shaw Festival's My Fair Lady

The musical classic, based on George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, also generates conversations about the themes of sexism, classism and identity.

Shaw Festival Theatre’s production of My Fair Lady is a must-see musical, as evidenced by who, with an extra lightness to their step, sang numbers from the musical as they left the theatre one enjoyable afternoon last week.

The Lerner and Loewe musical, based on George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, also generated conversations in the crowd around the themes of sexism, classism and identity.

As the professor of phonetics, the self-aggrandizing Henry Higgins is brilliantly played by Tom Rooney, who vacillates between spouting venom about the women in his life, while also calling himself “an ordinary man” with “the milk of human kindness by the quart in every vein.”

The middle-aged Higgins happens upon 21-year-old Eliza Doolittle, a lower-class flower girl with a Cockney accent. Higgins and his friend, Colonel Pickering, played by David Alan Anderson,  bet that Higgins “shall make a duchess of this draggle-tailed guttersnipe” in “six months.”

Doolittle, beautifully acted by 12-year Shaw veteran Kristi Frank, is unaware of the bet and takes Higgins up on the offer to better her job prospects; she has a dream of owning a flower shop.

Doolittle and Higgins form a bond, despite the ardent suitor, Freddy, perhaps the play’s first vulnerable male. Played by Taurian Teelucksingh, he has taken up residency outside Higgins’ home, where Doolittle is staying.

Doolittle must endure a few tests before Higgins and Pickering declare the outcome of the bet.

Set in 1910 London, Pygmalian was written in 1912. My Fair Lady premiered on Broadway in 1956. The musical is fraught with challenges for the modern day audience. Higgins treats Doolittle with contempt and disdain, calling her names and refusing to see her fierce ambition and determination.

Alfred P Doolittle, Eliza’s father, is no better. On the pretense of rescuing his daughter from Higgins’ clutch, he says, “all I ask is my rights as a father, and you’re the last man alive to expect me to let her go for nothing, for I can see you’re one of the straight sort, Governor. Well, what's a five-pound note to you? And what’s Eliza to me?”

Co-directors Tim Carroll and Kimberley Rampersad (she is also responsible for the delicious choreography) have found a way to empower Eliza, by not mining humour from the misogyny.

According to essayist Bob Hetherington, My Fair Lady isn’t a sexist musical, it is a “musical about a sexist time.” In the final scene, Higgins asks “where the devil are my slippers?” Doolittle’s silent reaction reveals that she is still as determined as when she sold flowers on Covent Garden, and it appears that Higgins might finally be able to accept this.

The costuming is tremendous and reflects not only the fashion at the beginning of the century, but also acts as a mirror reflecting the change in Doolittle. The highly stylized and sculpted hats of the women at the Ascot represent Doolittle’s transformation at the hands of Higgins.

Musically the score is expertly played under the direction of the talented Paul Sportelli. The set design is captivating, especially the seamless choreography of the actors and ensemble during a set change.

In a  conversation between Carroll and Rampersad included in the playbill, Carroll admits he has “never really directed a musical” because the transition from dialogue to song can feel “clunky.” He is assured by Rampersad that Lerner and Loewe “have made a piece where every song seems inevitable… and sometimes even singing isn’t enough and you need to dance.”

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