Americans always love stories about success, and while “My Fair Lady” doesn’t quite fit the mold of the classic rags-to-riches story, it is certainly worth the trip.
Based on George Bernard Shaw’s book “Pygmalion,” this musical is the story of Eliza Doolittle, a poor flower girl who has the dubious fortune of meeting Henry Higgins, an linguistics expert. Henry takes a bet that he can make Eliza talk and act like an aristocrat in six months, and the show unfolds around his efforts to do so.
Eliza’s education proves to be a most difficult task. Henry takes her into his house and drills her relentlessly, determined to make good on his bet. With the help of Colonel Pickering, the man with whom Henry has the bet, they work at molding her into a reasonable facsimile of an aristocratic lady. Her Cockney accent, lower class manners, and ragged clothes all must go, replaced by proper English, delicate grace, and shimmering gowns.
“My Fair Lady” tells the tale of a country where social class has long been one of the most important factors of everyone’s life. One can immediately infer another’s economic status from the way they speak the language. The musical plays on this near obsession with speech and manners to produce a telling story about the desire to escape from negative stereotypes that unfairly prevent the lower classes from rising any higher. Eliza does not want to be an aristocrat; she simply wants to be able to speak proper English so she can work in a flower shop instead of selling flowers on the street. The show is filled with characters whose dreams have been deferred only because of their accents.
This production of “My Fair Lady” features a strong cast. As Eliza Doolittle, Jessica Boevers makes the audience feel the anguish of someone trying to escape her place in life for something better. James Brennan, playing Henry Higgins, gives a strong performance. One can almost feel the scorn dripping from his voice as he sings about the lower classes. Colonel Pickering, played by John-Charles Kelly, brings a kinder touch to Eliza’s education. Notable in the supporting cast was Bernard Wurger, who plays Alfred P. Doolittle, Eliza’s drunken father. Alfred brings a good laugh at all the right times, and Wurger does an excellent job with the character.
The music for the show shifts as seamlessly as the sets, from the back alleys of London to a formal ball at Buckingham palace. But the brilliant writing and strong cast of “My Fair Lady” built to an end that was surprisingly unsatisfactory. This is not a failing of this particular production. Without giving away the ending, George Bernard Shaw did not believe in unrealistic happy endings, and he gave permission for his book to be turned into a musical on the condition that the ending not be changed. However, this small disappointment does not take away too much from what is otherwise a grand production of a fabulous story.
“My Fair Lady” runs through Jan. 6 at the Walnut Street Theater.