The Guthrie's midsummer blockbusters are often a bore, offering work that is crowd-pleasing but lacking in depth and vibrant energy.
Well knock me over with a feather, but My Fair Lady has both of those things in bunches, just like the omnipresent baskets of flowers that decorate the stage.
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The production is loaded with confident performances, dynamic dancing, and gorgeous singing (honestly, I don't think I've ever heard these Learner and Lowe songs sung so well). It also doesn't try to shoehorn a romance where there isn't one. Instead, the relationship between "guttersnipe" Eliza Doolittle and tormentor/mentor Professor Henry Higgins plays out more as George Bernard Shaw intended.
It's always important to keep Shaw in mind when looking at My Fair Lady. His comedy was, in part, an examination -- and damnation -- of a calcified British society that strictly divided people according to class and gender.
Eliza is a counter to those assumptions. She starts as a poor Londoner, selling flowers on the street to make enough to eat and keep a roof over her head. A chance encounter with the good professor changes all of that. The caustic educator, as an aside, notes that he could turn her into a "proper" lady -- one who could get a real job in a place like a flower shop.
Bold as brass and full of hopes for a better life, Eliza follows Higgins and takes him up on the offer. For the professor, it is all a lark. For her, it is a chance to move up in a society that has deemed her to not be much better than refuse in the street.
Eliza is our heroine here, and that comes through in Helen Anker's confident and measured performance. Even when disguised by the grime of Edwardian London, Eliza is clearly someone to be reckoned with, whether she is holding her own on the street or throwing the slippers at a clueless Higgins.
In contrast to this, the three male leads (and almost all of the upper-class characters) come off as total twits. Sure, Colonel Pickering (Tony Sheldon) is a gentle one, and love-struck Freddy (Tyler Michaels, who nearly brings the house down with "On the Street Where You Live") is a young and handsome one, but they are still essentially clueless when dealing with Eliza as a person.
And then there's the professor. Jeff McCarthy doesn't try to soften this misanthropic, crusty middle-aged bachelor. He is rude to all comers and, for the most part, sees Eliza as an elocution experiment rather than a human being. His thorniness is an essential part of the character, and Joe Dowling's direction -- especially in the play's final moments -- never wavers in that regard.
Characters aside, this My Fair Lady is gorgeous to look at and listen to, starting with Walt Spangler's inviting set and embracing the lush harmonies built by music director Andrew Cooke.
Joe Chvala's choreography is brilliant throughout, reaching highs in the scenes at Ascot, as the high-class folks move in only the stiffest of manners to an epic, physical breakout in "Get Me to the Church on Time."
IF YOU GO:
My Fair Lady Through August 31 Guthrie Theater 818 S. Second St., Minneapolis $34-$85 For tickets and more information, call 612.377.2224 or visit online.
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