By Kimberly Rau
Fans of classic musicals rejoice: the national tour of the Lincoln Center Theater’s production of Lerner & Loewe’s My Fair Lady is in Providence, and what a show it is.
Based on George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion,” “My Fair Lady” is the story of Eliza Doolittle, a Cockney flower seller who becomes a pawn in a game between the pompous professor Henry Higgins and his friend Col. Pickering. Higgins, an expert in language and phonetics, boasts that he can take anyone (say, a flower seller with a heck of an accent) and make them indistinguishable from nobility with some basic language instruction. When Eliza shows up to ask for lessons, Pickering tells Higgins to put his money where his mouth is, and the game is on. Naturally, Eliza is successful, and Higgins is completely obtuse about it, which leads to conflict (but like any good fairy tale, all is well in the end).
What makes this production different from other interpretations of the Broadway musical is director Bartlett Sher’s insistence that Eliza be centered in the show, not Higgins, as is often the case. With some careful staging, some added dialogue from “Pygmalion” and a slight subtle twist at the end, Sher makes Eliza shine.
However, Eliza wouldn’t shine nearly so brightly if she weren’t played by the brilliant Shereen Ahmed, whose voice is an absolute joy to listen to. This may be one of the few leading lady roles left that hasn’t gone entirely to the belters, and Ahmed does as beautifully with the music as she does with the role itself.
At the opening night performance, Colin Anderson played Professor Higgins. Anderson’s voice is very good (another welcome change, especially if you’re familiar with the classic Rex Harrison take on things) and his acting skills are just as enjoyable. He and Ahmed have remarkable chemistry as well.
Rounding out the trifecta is East Providence native Kevin Pariseau as the empathetic Col. Pickering, the man who really tries to see Eliza as more than just the subject of a bet (even though he’s the one who made the wager in the first place). Pariseau gives us an even-tempered and loyal Col. Pickering, though Higgins often drives him to drink. He is a delight. Other notable mentions include Martin Fisher as Alfred Doolittle, Eliza’s father, and Leslie Alexander as Mrs. Higgins, who is well aware of the terror her son Henry is.
This “My Fair Lady” doesn’t scrimp on the details, from Catherine Zuber’s elaborate costumes to Michael Yeargan’s beautiful, very clever rotating set. The tour also includes a full orchestra, another unexpected delight when so many do not anymore.
Whether you saw the original on Broadway, did “Pygmalion” in high school or grew up with the Audrey Hepburn movie musical, this is one of those stories that you can’t help but love, and with a little tweaking here and there, it stands the test of time. Regardless of how you came to know Eliza Doolittle, this tour is one you won’t want to miss.
My Fair Lady runs through Sunday, May 15, at the Providence Performing Arts Center, 220 Weybosset St., Providence. Tickets can be purchased at the box office, online at ppacri.org or by calling 401.421.2787.