‘My Fair Lady’ at Orpheum Theatre is very ‘loverly’ indeed

Photo of My Fair Lady
Joan Marcus/Courtesy

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The Lincoln Center Theater’s production of “My Fair Lady” is touring across the United States. From now until Nov. 28, this spectacular musical will shower its magnificence upon the Bay Area at San Francisco’s Orpheum Theatre, and viewers are in for a treat.

“My Fair Lady,” a musical based on George Bernard Shaw’s 1913 play “Pygmalion,” tells the story of Eliza Doolittle (Shereen Ahmed), an impoverished, cockney flower girl who joins the household of the haughty phonetician Professor Henry Higgins (Laird Mackintosh) after he wagers fellow linguist Colonel Pickering (Kevin Pariseau) that he can teach Eliza to speak “proper” English well enough to pass as a duchess at the Embassy Ball in six months’ time. A cheery comedy-drama, this beloved story is told in Lincoln Center Theater’s production with impressive ease, along with immaculate set design and the talents of a remarkable cast.

This production of the winner of the 1957 Tony Award for Best Musical is directed by best direction winner Bartlett Sher, who has done a commendable job overseeing every triumphant facet of the production. One of the most notable aspects of the musical, and one of the first audiences will notice, is the glorious set design. The musical opens on a stretch of an Edwardian London street, and the thoughtfully designed set brought extraordinary depth to the stage of the Orpheum, cleverly manipulating the theater’s limited space to make the scene feel expansive and, therefore, even more immersive.

The production’s awe-inspiring set design does not stop there, however; the set of Professor Higgins’ house is jaw-droppingly gorgeous. Precisely painted and decorated and complete with two stories connected by a spiral staircase, it is hard to believe that this marvelous set could be made better still — suddenly, the piece begins to spin, revealing two more rooms and a patio behind the living room and to its side. Packed full of detail yet preserving enough room for actors to freely move about the space, this majestic set truly absorbs the audience into the world of the musical. At every given moment, “My Fair Lady” is a sight to behold.

The musical’s stellar cast delivers a world-class performance. Star Shereen Ahmed is the first woman of color to play Eliza Doolittle in Broadway and West End history, and she plays the role second to none. Balancing Eliza’s natural quirkiness and learned elegance, Ahmed’s consistently great acting is complemented by a beautifully bright, songbird-like voice. She performs classics such as “Wouldn’t it Be Loverly?,” “The Rain in Spain” and “I Could Have Danced All Night” with lots of personality and effortlessness and brings lovable depth to her character. Ahmed also has good chemistry with Mackintosh; scenes with both characters in them are natural, fluid and thoroughly pleasant to watch.

Another notable performance comes from Sam Simahk, who plays Freddy Eynsford-Hill. Simahk sings with a first-rate, warm vibrato that easily resonates throughout the theater. His emotional performance, filled with believable longing and determination, doesn’t ever fail to tug at heartstrings.

The musical is also supported by a talented ensemble; cast members play an impressive variety of supporting roles throughout the show, and all well. The ensemble also fantastically executes the production’s amazing choreography, instilling movement and liveliness into the musical. The dynamic ensemble makes “Ascot Gavotte” and “Get Me to the Church on Time” some of the most enjoyable and exciting numbers of the entire show.

With a runtime of two hours and 55 minutes, the one shortcoming of “My Fair Lady” is its tendency to feel a bit too drawn-out at times. Its lighthearted yet simple premise, when stretched out for so long, starts to feel stale toward the end of the first act. However, as action picks up again in the second act, this feeling fades away and the distinguished production’s overall quality certainly outweighs a few weaker points.

Absolutely stunning and filled with passion, Lincoln Center Theater’s “My Fair Lady” is an all-around success. While the tour is still in San Francisco, make sure to visit the Orpheum Theatre and take in its grandeur.

Joy Diamond covers theater. Contact her at [email protected].