I don't often agree with Plato, who would have banned dramatists from his perfect city, the Republic. But I'm prepared to make an exception in the case of My Fair Lady.
This is decidedly a minority opinion on a work once held as a musical-theater cornerstone. In the 1990s, The New York Times was still calling My Fair Lady's 1956 Broadway premiere "probably the perfect expression of the perfect musical." And my conclusion has little to do with the largely competent revival on the boards at Temple Theatre. The question is whether this work, on its own merits, would be produced anywhere if it were a new play. I have serious doubts.
In My Fair Lady, two members of the British upper crust make a bet, just after the turn of the last century, concerning the uneducated, impoverished Eliza Doolittle. Could they successfully pass her off as royalty after sequestering her and subjecting her to educational experiments for six months?
It almost doesn't happen. After their initial encounter, one of the men throws some spare change at her feet, and both leave—at which time the colorful street-people of playwright Alan Jay Lerner's world spontaneously break into song and dance.
The subject? Their own poverty. In "Wouldn't It Be Loverly," they wish for impossible extravagances such as a heated room with a single chair. But the lilting melodies (by Frederick Loewe), deft dancing and winning smiles of the cast try to convince us that the indigent are generally happy enough with their station—quite happy, given the rousing high spirits, later on, of "With a Little Bit of Luck."
The last time Americans saw such a wholesale whitewashing of an underclass was in the minstrel shows of the early 20th century, which depicted poor black people as similarly amusing, earthy optimists, content with their lot in life.
Yes, Lerner's script offers some class critiques, and director Peggy Taphorn, choreographer Jacob Toth and costume designer Lynda Clark ably follow suit, mocking the swells in "The Ascot Gavotte." And central character Henry Higgins clearly indicts a sexist, self-centered intelligentsia more concerned with phonemes than the human consequences of their research, though actor John Allore's emotional bandwidth seems too narrow to sell "Why Can't the English" and "I'm An Ordinary Man."
As Eliza, the animated Hailey Best Jernigan, with her incandescent voice, gives wings to "I Could Have Danced All Night," but the canned soundtrack of this karaoke take on musical theater shortchanged some numbers' spontaneity.
In research that challenged British society, Charles Booth found that more than a third of London's population lived in poverty at the start of the 1900s. And I cannot reconcile John Galt's photos documenting the depravations of Edwardian London with the cheerier depictions in this script.
Plato believed that dramatists could seduce and sway their audiences with beauty that departs from the truth. My Fair Lady seems to do just that. My rating for this production assesses the performance only; I can give no endorsement to its script.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Poxy lady"