MY FAIR LADY at Providence Performing Arts Center

There’s often discussion as to how to update musicals like the 1956 My Fair Lady -as if Elitist, snobbery, and sexism don’t exist in today’s world. The play it’s based on, George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion is now more than a century old, and director Bartlett Sher has addressed these concerns in the Lincoln Center Theater’s current production (now at the Providence Performing Arts Center) by downplaying the fluffy romance of the mid-century musical and returning the Irish playwright’s original intent for the characters.

But the show also has been updated the best way possible – with a mega-talented color-blind cast who turn every number into a showstopper.

Shereen Ahmed is utterly convincing as a sassy Eliza Doolittle, brave enough to leave everything she’s ever known to seek out the brilliant but bullying professor who holds he knowledge she needs to improve her station in life. But most importantly, Ahmed’s voice thrills. Her renditions of “Wouldn’t It be Loverly” and “Show Me” stand up to any memory you may have of these songs.

Like Ahmed, Colin Anderson is someone you’ll be glad you got a chance to see now. As an understudy for this production, Anderson stepped into the role of Henry Higgins, and portrayed Higgins with poignant depth as well as the well-known comic, but articulate, bullying. His solo “I’ve Grown Accustomed to her Face,” was particularly moving, revealing the scared man behind the bullying fa├žade. Together Anderson and Ahmed create an Eliza and Henry that were well matched as adversaries and advocates.

From the first few moments when set designer Michael Yeargan’s ingenious flats sweep into place to create a very dimensional Covent Garden, we know that we are in for a treat. His sets delight with the charm of intricate pop-up greeting cards. The showpiece of his design is his rotating creation for Henry Higgins’s posh Edwardian bachelor pad, intricate with stairways and doorways that allow the action to flow from room to room and stuffed with detail that recalls a luxury dollhouse -so fitting for when Henry’s mother, elegantly played by Leslie Alexanderblames her son and Pickering of being a “pretty pair of babies playing with their live doll.”

The only drawback to this magnificent set was that it audibly groaned as it moved forward.

Another standout was Sam Simahk as the lovestruck dandy Freddy Eynsford-Hill. Simahk performed one of the show’s loveliest numbers “On the Street Where You Live,” in such a way one wishes he had five more numbers, while also managing to humorously show how clueless the character is.

Two of the pivotal scenes, in which we see Eliza among the upper echelons of society – at the Ascott races and at the Embassy Ball seemed rushed and staged almost as afterthoughts. We barely got to see Lee Zarrett as “the hairy hound from Budapest” Zolatan Karpathy, although what we did get to see enjoyable.

Unfortunately, at times it was hard to hear or understand Martin Fisher as Alfred P. Doolittle, although he played Eliza’s ne’er do well father with great energy. This could have been a technical issue since at times his vocals could not be heard over the orchestra, such as during “I’m Getting Married in the Morning,” which should have been a showpiece for him.

That scene was also marred by touches of lewdness that seemed strikingly out of place for the rest of the show.

Rhode Island native and Broadway veteran Kevin Pariseau brings heart and his rich, resonate voice to character of Col. Pickering. (It’s no wonder he’s voiced more than one hundred audio books.)

The Lyrics and music by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe are among musical theater’s most beloved. Loewe’s exquisite overture was performed beautifully by the My Fair Lady Orchestra with music directorJohn Bell and Luke Flood, Dmitriy Melkumov, Mark O’Kain, Dan Harp, Joe Higgins, Anne Gasper, Cheryl Bishkoff, Peter Cokkinias, Greg Newton, David Gasper, Richard Kelley, Richard Given, Walt Bostian and Hyunjung Choi – sadly, it was something most of the Providence audience missed because they wouldn’t stop talking to hear it.

My Fair Lady runs through May 15 at the Providence Performing Arts Center.

Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

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