Pictured: Allison Jones and Company. Photo by J. Robert Schraeder.
By Marissa Carter
MY FAIR LADY, the musical adaptation of the play and movie PYGMALION is classic musical theater. Eliza Doolittle struggles to learn how to act like a lady while juggling her feelings for her overbearing teacher, Henry Higgins.
In spite of the rampant sexism expressed in the script, MY FAIR LADY has always been a personal favorite of mine. Partly because the music is so catchy, but mostly because Eliza has always resonated with me. Here is a woman who is strong in her own right. She was mistreated by her father, ignored by society, and trampled on in general. Yet still, she fought every day to earn an honest living and build a life. Then, when she saw the opportunity to better herself and, by extension, improve her circumstances, she took the chance — even though it meant facing her own weaknesses and subjecting herself to terrible treatment at the hands of those that were helping her. This is the Eliza Doolittle I have always known was under the surface, and it is the exact character that is brought to life in this production.
Director Heidi Van had every intention of highlighting the true strength of Eliza when she took on this project (as expressed in her program note), and she succeeded. Under her direction, and with the remarkable talent of Allison Jones, the Eliza in this show is fiery and passionate. The familiar character arc from hot-tempered street urchin to meek and mild-mannered lady is gone. Instead, Jones portrays an Eliza that only gets stronger on her journey. This is a woman who holds her head high, takes pride in herself, and will not let this man, or society, or anything else hold her down. It is, in a word, awesome.
In this light, Henry Higgins, played by Bruce Roach, is a worthy adversary who is strong, but completely lacking in self-awareness. He is brutal with his words and actions, and refuses to consider that he has any room for growth. In the end, he is left confused and lonely, wondering what went wrong while Eliza takes center stage to embrace all that she is and was.
To my knowledge, none of the dialogue was changed in this production, yet the entire premise feels different: The audience laughs ironically as Roach launches into a tirade that is already inappropriate, and is made comically so by Jones’ antics and eye rolls; and Margaret Shelby (as Mrs. Pearce) stands strong and offers impatient sighs as Roach and Robert Gibby Brand (as Colonel Pickering) bluster through their wagers and discussions.
It helps, of course, that the entire cast is en pointe in this production. Set against a beautifully simple backdrop from Scenic Designer Mark Exline and Lighting Designer Nicole Jaja, they execute every musical number and piece of dialogue naturally and intentionally. MTH has given us a wonderful production to watch, and proof that the classics can still find relevance with a modern audience.
MY FAIR LADY runs through September 30th at the MTH Theater at Crown Center. For more information, visit MTHKC.com.