BWW Review: MY FAIR LADY at Theatre Tulsa
Near the end of My Fair Lady, the transformed heroine Eliza Doolittle shares an insight about her experience: "The difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves, but how she is treated." The Theatre Tulsa production that just finished its 2-week run at the Performing Arts Center takes this idea one step further. In their interpretation of My Fair Lady, the difference between a lady and a flower girl also has to do with how she is empowered to treat others and advocate for herself.
My Fair Lady is a Broadway classic, and yet it's difficult to produce well in 2019. The show is by famous musical theatre team Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe and is based on George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion. It tells the story of Covent Garden flower girl Eliza Doolittle who seeks out speech lessons from Professor Henry Higgins, a renowned phoneticist with a distaste for women. She becomes the subject of a wager with Mr. Higgins and his more mild-mannered colleague, Colonel Pickering, and embarks upon 6 months of sharing a home with the men as a live-in student. For Higgins to prove his prowess as a teacher, Eliza must erase all traces of her cockney accent and working class bearing and pass as a member of the elite at the aristocrat-packed Embassy Ball.
This story is not a challenge because Eliza is treated like a pawn in a man's game. In fact, the show is very self-aware and prompts audiences to cringe as she is sidelined and overlooked again and again. My Fair Lady presents an exceptional challenge in 2019 because it implies a budding infatuation between the misogynist and his pupil. The very last moments of the show are the most excruciating - even after enduring months of unapologetic abuse, Eliza returns to Higgins side, concluding their story with a suggestion of blossoming romance. However, director Vern Stefanic transformed this narrative, not only by changing the ending, but by setting up the rest of the show to make the modern interpretation of the show's last moments land with a deeply satisfying hit. It was clear that this alteration to the show's ending wasn't just tacked on after the fact as an easy solution to the difficulty of the story.
The performances of Tabitha Littlefield as Eliza and Mark Frie as Henry Higgins were a testament to the thoughtful reworking of the romance, sex, and power dynamics throughout the show as a whole. Ms. Littlefield's Eliza was an absolute tour de force, and the role provided a fantastic opportunity for her to showcase her incredible flexibility and range as a performer. (And this is just within the one character - audience members who also saw her as Yitzhak in Hedwig and the Angry Inch last fall had the wonderfully disorienting privilege of being able to conjure the sound of her stunning rock and roll belt during the more delicate parts of "Wouldn't it Be Loverly".) At every stage of Eliza's transformation, Littlefield stayed true to her essential qualities of spunk and self-reliance, giving a welcome authenticity to even the most gimmicky moments of the show. During "I Could Have Danced All Night", she effortlessly translates what is written as excitement about Higgins into butterflies about her achievement in speech, and she allows Eliza to hold her own even in the face of Higgins' manipulation and abuse. Littlefield's joy is infectious, but her strength is what makes the performance extraordinary.
Frie's portrayal of Higgins reconciled the character's charisma, misanthropy, manipulation, and wrenching isolation: basically, he compelled the audience to feel for Higgins without ever tempting us to truly root for him or be on his side. He maintained an adroit balance between the comedic and the sinister, letting moments of humor brighten the stage while never allowing the audience to forget that they belie Higgins' nasty appetite for dominance. It is a relief that Frie does not deny Higgins' cruelty, and he simply lets the script do the work for itself: in a telling moment, Higgins makes a rare concession about his relationship with Eliza and acknowledges that "she matters"... but only as a demonstration of an abstract idea. Frie does not force Higgins to transform when no transformation has occurred - even at the end of the play, Eliza still only matters to him as a salve for his loneliness and discomfort. Combined with impeccable accent work and a remarkable vocal performance, Frie's thoughtful portrayal of Higgins alongside Littlefield's radiant Eliza made for an electrifying pair.
These two leads were joined by formidable supporting characters and a wonderfully energetic ensemble. Connor Blakely as Freddy Eynsford-Hill provided an earnest and lively performance of the classic "On the Street Where You Live" and John Orsulak was memorable as Alfred Doolittle, Eliza's raucous and tipsy father. His big showstopping number, "Get Me to the Church On Time", had the whole audience toe-tapping and marvelling at the cast's stamina. Indeed, the ensemble wore many hats - quite literally - throughout the show, adopting a wide variety of personas from the lowest London street urchins to high society socialites. Their ability to adapt their bearing and dancing styles to the different settings was a testament not only to their skill but also to the work of choreographer Jennifer Alden. Their costumes, by Mandy Gross and Lisa Hunter, also contributed to the effectiveness of these transitions, and their absurdly fancy monochromatic attire at the Ascot race was a true standout.
But how exactly did Theatre Tulsa choose to end My Fair Lady? When Eliza returns to find Higgins in his study, he utters a muted repetition of his line from earlier in the play, "Where the devil are my slippers?" But instead of bringing him his own slippers, Eliza hands her shoes to Higgins as a symbol of her rejection of his claim on her identity. She then walks downstage and drapes a suffragette banner across her chest, echoing the picket signs that some ensemble members carried across the stage during earlier street scenes. This of course places Eliza's story within a larger narrative of women's liberation, and solidifies her choice to not sacrifice her central qualities for the sake of a man. The musical theme of "I Could Have Danced All Night" swells in the background, but instead of bringing Eliza and Higgins together, it underscores the power of her decision to leave.
Theatre Tulsa has made a production of My Fair Lady in which Eliza truly "matters" - not just as a symbol for overcoming difference, but as one of the great female characters in the Broadway canon, who just might inspire audience members to bear a banner of their own.