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“My Fair Lady” at Proctors survives time, social changes and COVID

Kevin Pariseau as Colonel Pickering, Laird Mackintosh as Professor Henry Higgins and Shereen Ahmed as Eliza Doolittle in The Lincoln Center Theater Production of Lerner & Loewe’s MY FAIR LADY
Photo by © Joan Marcus
Kevin Pariseau as Colonel Pickering, Laird Mackintosh as Professor Henry Higgins and Shereen Ahmed as Eliza Doolittle in The Lincoln Center Theater Production of Lerner & Loewe’s MY FAIR LADY

“My Fair Lady”, which runs at Proctors in Schenectady through Sunday is a production that perfectly represents theater of 2022.

For one thing, it takes a classic musical with a social flaw and adjusts it to be more palatable to contemporary audiences.

Second, the national touring company performed Tuesday’s opening night with 10 replacement performers. Four of those were the leads: Eliza Doolittle, Professor Henry Higgins, Colonel Pickering and Freddy.

Though the cast all deserve bravos, it was not a blemish-free production. Obviously, that many new performers forced some less than spontaneous chemistry that hindered the opening act.

Happily, as the cast grew more comfortable, the second act saved the night as the story became as affecting as the music was beautifully sung.

And, thank goodness for the material. There are few people who would not list “My Fair Lady” as one of the greatest musicals of the 20th century. It is able to manage minor flaws when performed by professional actors.

This is a strong production that captures the strength of traditional musical theater while leaving itself open to fresh interpretations – or at least featuring nuances of contemporary social attitudes.

It’s a visually attractive show with great scenery that is constantly revealing a different space, thanks to a revolving turntable. The costumes are lush and beautiful, especially in the Ascot Race scene. And who could quarrel with a score you know by heart and yet feel as if you are hearing for the first time?

About the story of a phonetics teacher making a lady from a Cockney flower girl? As Shakespeare wrote, “There’s the rub.”

Under the direction of Bartlett Sher, Eliza is shown to be a more determined, independent woman. This is an area that understudy Sarah Quinn Taylor doesn’t quite capture in the play’s opening beats. She is determined to deny the woman gentleness and it comes at the cost of charm.

It also denies Wade McCollum, who is standing in as Henry Higgins, a potential love interest. McCollum does excellent work showing Higgins as an arrogant, self-centered individual. But without a lovable victim, to play off any romance between them seems not only impossible but distasteful.

As Eliza becomes more sophisticated, Taylor becomes more natural and relaxed. Her transformation makes the potential between them more genuine, funny and at times touching.

It doesn’t hurt that Taylor has a superb singing voice that makes it easy to fall in love with her. With his speak-songs McCollum provides what the role demands, a good actor who understands the importance of lyrical phrasing. He is absolutely masterful in catching the variety of emotions in songs like “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face.”

A reason “My Fair Lady” has endured is not only the potential love story between Eliza and Higgins. Its brilliance can be found in the fun of its secondary plots and characters.

Here, too, replacement actors save the day. Patrick Kerr as Colonel Pickering is both comical and genteel as the gentleman in the house who acts as Eliza’s protector.

George Psomas as the obsequious Freddy finds a dignified elegance in the love-struck suitor. His solo “On the Street Where You Live” is a highlight of a show that has many highlights. They include the ballroom scene, “The Rain in Spain” number and the celebratory “I Could Have Danced All Night.” Indeed, it’s a joy to have scene after scene filled with memorable music.

Regular cast members also make fine contributions. Leslie Alexander as Mrs. Higgins is a dignified representative of the upper class. No one knows her son’s faults better than she – and she tells him so in delightful ways. Gayton Scott as the housekeeper, Mrs. Pearce, provides the play with another dignified presence. She does more with a look than most actors do with a punch line.

My major disappointment was Martin Fisher’s interpretation of Eliza’s father, Alfred P. Doolittle. Traditionally he is played as an immoral but thoughtful philosopher for the “deserving poor,” who unexpectedly finds himself trapped as a member of the “respectable middle-class.” Instead of playing him as a lovable and wise rascal, Fisher plays him as crude and unengaging.

Sadly, this crudity carries over to what should be the best number in the show, “I’m Getting Married in the Morning.” It still is a number performed with vitality by Fisher and the talented ensemble, but it lacks joy and irony.

Indeed, director Sher is one of the most elegant directors working today and is a master of restaging classic musicals and finding ways to make them relevant to contemporary times. He succeeds in leaving the audience guessing about Eliza and Higgins, but fails with Alfred.

Even when not at its best, “My Fair Lady” is still very good. It is at Proctors until Sunday May 22. For tickets and schedule information call 518-346-6204 or go to proctor.org.

Bob Goepfert is theater reviewer for the Troy Record.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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