When My Fair Lady opens into Edwardian London, we see two very different worlds collide.
The upper crust spills out of the theatre into the chilly London night, noses tilted sky high as they swan around each other. Invisible to them are the street buskers tapping out a dance, or the flower girls trying to eke out a living, a few pennies at a time.
Professor Henry Higgins (Chris Carsten) and Eliza Doolittle (Aurora Florence) inhabit these two worlds, which are as far removed as night and day. The former is a learned phoneticist and student of the English language; the latter a common flower girl with a cockney accent so thick it piques Higgins' interest enough for him to accept a bet with linguistic contemporary Colonel Pickering (Richard Springle) that he can, within six months, transform her into a lady.
Thus begins the fish out of water story of Doolittle, first captured in George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion. Jeffrey B Moss re-imagines this version for the stage, where Doolittle finds herself thrust into Higgins' posh study and forced to learn her vowels, while enduring a host of his acid-tongued barbs along the way.
Doolittle starts out, as Higgins puts it, "so deliciously low, so horribly dirty", but Florence imagines a character that is a likeable combination of girlish vulnerability and an unpretentious understanding of her station in life. Her cockney accent, so integral to the role, falters slightly during some of the numbers as she lets slip a couple of vowels that sounded a tad too polished for pre-transformation Doolittle. But her timbre soars so pitch perfectly and crystal clear that it matters little, and I found myself rooting for her when she dreamed of a "warm bed, warm 'ands, warm feet" just as much as when she was straining to enunciate properly, garbled speech and dropped vowels be damned.
Higgins, however, offers no such leeway as he browbeats Doolittle into compliance, much to the chagrin of Pickering and a suitably disapproving Mrs Pierce (Jesse Graham). Much of the musical's talky humour is drawn from these exchanges, which Carsten delivers with impeccable pronunciation and comic timing. Although he paints a boorish, imperious and sometimes unreasonably self-important picture of Higgins, Carsten still has the audience laughing in knowing appreciation at his rendition of Let A Woman In My Life, an upbeat number where he rejects all desire of female companionship. One can almost see the gods of foreshadowing waiting in the wings to prove this "confirmed old bachelor" wrong.
Phonetics aside, at the heart of My Fair Lady is a love story, and the socio-economic barriers that at first seem to impede it melt away as Doolittle moves up in the world only to find that for all his posturing, Higgins isn't that far ahead of her after all. Moss takes his time letting this love story unfurl, and it is testament to both leads that the (albeit slow) realisation of their relationship is a fulfilling one. Florence tackles the evolution of Doolittle with deftness and maturity, and it is delightful to watch the erstwhile "barbarous wretch" hold her own while sparring verbally with Higgins. Meanwhile, Carsten crafts a textured character in Higgins when he peels back Higgins' emotional layers in I've Grown Accustomed To Her Face, revealing the longing behind his petulance, and how he hides the sting of rejection behind childish indignation.
The supporting cast, led in many scenes by Doolittle's recalcitrant alcoholic father Alfred P Doolittle (Michael Brian Dunn), is a riotous barrel of laughs packaged in a seamless routine. The ensemble captures the verve of the back streets as the senior Doolittle's rambunctious sidekicks as well as they do the stilted tableaux of high society at the Ascott, and credit must go to choreographer Denis Michael Jones for imagining these sequences.
This lengthy musical is a mammoth undertaking - the original film adaptation, starring Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison, clocks in at just under three hours. Moss' interpretation, which runs for about two and a half, is well-paced (save for the unexpected exclusion of the embassy ball which is a visual feast and one of the highlights of the film version), giving both the characters and themes sufficient room to breathe. Particularly noteworthy is Get Me To The Church On Time, the irrepressible senior Doolittle's farewell to the good life of the "undeserving poor". The number is yet another nod to the class-consciousness of the day, a theme no less relevant to this Singaporean audience over a century later and half a world away.
Interestingly, My Fair Lady eventually winds down into a conclusion that keeps in line with the original version while offering its own subtle update to the Higgins-Doolittle dynamic. This fair lady is, in a word, quite loverly.
Originally posted on Inkpotreviews here.