‘My Fair Lady,’ a problematic classic with amazing production, comes to Des Moines

My Fair Lady

Aug. 2- Aug. 7, Des Moines Civic Center, $40-174

Shereen Ahmed plays Eliza in “My Fair Lady” at the Civic Center. -Joan Marcus / Des Moines Performing Arts

My Fair Lady, presented by Lincoln Center Theater, opened at the Civic Center in Des Moines Tuesday night and almost every row was filled. The musical is an adaptation on George Bernard Shaw’s 1913 play Pygmalion, involving a professor of phonetics training a poor woman with a thick working class accent to pass as a member of high society in order to win a bet with a colleague.

Alan Jay Lerner’s adaptation of the text into a musical has become a classic since its premiere on Broadway in 1956. With several beloved songs, featuring music by Lerner’s partner Frederick Loewe, as well as iconic moments, it’s no wonder audiences flock to the theaters every time it comes into town.

Unfortunately, My Fair Lady is a story that seems to still be stuck in the past.

I’m a woman in her early 20s with a general preference for local, experimental theater. I love to watch classics get pulled away from their roots and manicured into something more representative of the modern day. And I do recognize that for the scope of performances Lincoln Center Theater is undertaking with this tour, that kind of deconstruction is not probable.

Instead, director Bartlett Sher aimed to change the context around the words through blocking, performance and casting. For me, these were the high points of the production.

Laird Mackintosh as Professor Henry Higgins and Lee Zarrett as Professor Zoltan Karpathy in “My Fair Lady.” — Joan Marcus/Des Moines Performing Arts

Laird Mackintosh as Professor Henry Higgins played up Higgins’ childishness in several of his conversations with his mother and Eliza. With exaggerated movements and facial expressions, Mackintosh’s portrayal of Higgins was of a slightly unhinged, self-centered genius. Even though Higgins is supposed to be the one exemplifying high society behavior, his lack of maturity during conflict does lead the audience to distrust him a bit. But only a bit.

Conversely, Eliza Doolittle, portrayed by Shereen Ahmed, was steadfast and composed. Even at the beginning before her transformation, Ahmed’s physical portrayal of Eliza endeared us to her as much as it could have. Ahmed’s Eliza could fend for herself and she was clearly used to doing just that.

Additionally, Ahmed as Eliza was a breath of fresh air in the musical. Recognized as one of “40 Under 40” accomplished Arab Americans in the U.S. by the Arab America Foundation in 2020, her command of the stage and her fantastic vocal performance allowed the audience to exit the world of the play just long enough to recognize that the performer in front of us was commanding us as well. Because we loved Ahmed, we also loved Eliza.

The actors appeared to do all they could, but the script still stands. For a show that is so focused on words, I’d be remiss not to mention how the language functions in this play. In the very first scene, Higgins refers to Eliza as a “creature,” a “prisoner of the gutters,” a “silly girl,” and ultimately tells her that “a woman who utters such depressing and disgusting sounds has no right to be anywhere — no right to live.”

Company performs “Get Me To The Church On Time” in “My Fair Lady.” -Joan Marcus/Des Moines Performing Arts

And while these words speak more to Higgins’ character than Eliza’s, they are hard to listen to. As we sat through the first act, I wondered how many members of the audience actually heard the words they were laughing at, or if they had gotten lost in the somewhat muddy accents. I wouldn’t have caught the text if I hadn’t read the script just a few hours before curtain.

By the end of the show, outside of Eliza’s high society transformation, everyone pretty much stays the same. We are left on an abrupt note of Eliza returning to Higgins’ study even after she expressed her frustration with the experiment. She leaves afterward, a significant change to the original musical that was hailed as the show’s “#MeToo makeover” when the revival first launched in 2018. But it is so quick and subtle that it is easily missed in this staging.

If Higgins learned how to be kinder, or learned not use people as experiments for his own pleasure, we certainly don’t see it play out in front of us.

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Content aside, the performance and set design in this show were stunning. Set designer Michael Yeargan reimagined Higgins’ house on a rotating platform with a series of staircases, intricate details and working doors. Combined with the blocking and choreography, it was a spectacle to watch the characters run across the house, never losing sight of them even as they changed rooms.

Audiences were also treated to strong vocal performances and choreography from the whole cast. The show never lost steam through its three-hour runtime, maintaining its pacing all the way to curtain call. On a production level, the show was an absolute treat.

Overall, My Fair Lady just isn’t my cuppa tea. Classics are an important part of our culture and do deserve a spot on our stages today, but they must be open to scrutiny. Without taking clearer and more effective liberties with the script, My Fair Lady will always be a little bit classist and a little bit sexist, even if Eliza can sing the hell out of “I Could Have Danced All Night.”

Leslie Alexander as Mrs. Higgins and Shereen Ahmed as Eliza in “My Fair Lady.” -Joan Marcus/Des Moines Performing Arts