“My Fair Lady” is a kind of complicated musical fairy tale. It offers audiences a wonderfully picturesque Victoriana and an enchanting transformation from poverty to wealth, but it also corrupts its own magic by unveiling the grim social injustices underlying the story. Fresh off Broadway, Bartlett Sher’s production is slick and accomplished, but loses narrative subtlety in a crowd-pleasing burst of high-end kitsch.
Amara Okereke plays Cockney florist Eliza Doolittle with vocal aplomb: her voice soars through much-loved songs like “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly,” making for a heartbreaking climax to the show. But she also makes Eliza a caricature. When she’s insulted like a “crushed cabbage leaf” by upper-class phonetics expert Henry Higgins, she’s not crushed – she physically pushes him out of the room, in moments of physical comedy that mask his vulnerability at the time. And as Higgins, Harry Hadden-Paton lacks the haughty charisma and underlying menace needed to give their relationship real sparkle.
Sher’s directing and Michael Yeargan’s elaborate but flat set design closely follow the much-loved 1963 film, and in doing so they create a stable frame around that story, a frame that only broad performances can pierce enough to make the audience laugh. . Sher’s treatment of “I’m Getting Married in the Morning” is a case in point: This song is a comic book classic, and it shouldn’t need flashing chorus girls in panties and a dummy bride. drag to have the audience in stitches.
If you strip away its romantic trappings, “My Fair Lady” is the story of two high-society men who take a bet on a friendless working-class woman, trick her into speaking and acting “right” through endless lessons, dress her up like a doll, then be surprised when she shows signs of feeling. Sher tries to address the uncomfortable undertones of “My Fair Lady” with an edited ending designed to give Eliza more agency. It doesn’t really work, when there’s been so little directorial innovation in what’s come before. It’s a delight to hear Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s score fill the Coliseum, and this production will just about satisfy its fans, without offering enough to win over the doubters.