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'My Fair Lady' returns to Milwaukee with updated show, brilliant cast

A large group of actors in early 1900s clothing celebrate with their arms in the air during a production of "My Fair Lady."
Jeremy Daniel
Michael Hegarty as Alfred P. Doolittle (center) and The Company of The National Tour of "My Fair Lady."

This year is set to bring another delightful collection of Broadway musicals to Milwaukee at the Marcus Performing Arts Center. The season kicked off late last year with Les Miserables, and on view now is the 1956 classic, My Fair Lady. I had the opportunity to see the production opening night, and left impressed with the vocal performances and — more importantly — the needed updates to the show.

My Fair Lady opens on the streets of 1912 London and introduces the audience to Eliza Doolittle, a working-class flower peddler who speaks with a thick cockney accent and — for the period — is considered unrefined due to her speech and appearance. She quickly meets the wealthy and learned Professor Henry Higgins, a phonetics expert who encounters her in the street and agrees to teach her how to speak “proper” English inside his palatial Wimpole Street manor.

Three actors in early 1900s clothing laugh while seated in an elegant sitting room during a production of the musical "My Fair Lady."
Jeremy Daniel
Jonathan Grunert as Professor Henry Higgins, Madeline Powell as Eliza Doolittle and John Adkison as Colonel Pickering in The National Tour of "My Fair Lady."

However, Doolittle and Higgins — played by Madeline Powell and Jonathan Grunert, respectively — do not have a healthy working relationship. Higgins repeatedly berates Doolittle, hurling insults such as “creature,” “guttersnipe” and “devil” without remorse, even after she unlearns her accent and replaces it with “proper” vowels.

These clashes invite a brutal examination of misogyny, feminism and social class — and audible gasps from the audience. Some of the songs and lines from the original 1956 musical are uncomfortable to watch today, with Higgins verbally abusing Doolittle, eventually leading to a physical confrontation.

But the new stage adaptation directed by Bartlett Sher with tour direction by Samantha Saltzman modernizes the show with an empowering twist in the second act. Also, during a lively ensemble dance number, the production forces the audience to examine gender roles during a celebratory moment, leading us to question how gender is seen and valued in society.

Source material aside, the performances were excellent. Vocals from the two leads were unwavering and most impressive, with favorites “I Could Have Danced All Night,” “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly” and “The Rain in Spain” reliably delighting the audience. The intricate, multilevel set served as a third character in many of the pair’s interactions, with a spiral staircase at the center, allowing for fast-paced and comedic staging.

If you're on the fence about the show, know that the updates bring it into the 21st century and address its most problematic parts. Still, the adult themes do merit deeper discussion, particularly for younger audiences.

My Fair Lady runs through Sunday at the Marcus Performing Arts Center.

Director of Digital Content | Radio Milwaukee