"My Fair Lady" set the template for the makeover rom-com. In the cynical and cleverly-penned tale, social powerbrokers take a woman off the streets and teach her to fit into high society.
The musical has been sparking smiles and belly laughs from audiences since Julie Andrews and Rex Harrison dazzled audiences in the 1950s. The touring production stays true to the show's roots, resisting the urge to modernize the well-honed beats and one-liners.
The dedication to tradition will likely please musical die-hards, who have likely seen the show and the film it inspired several times, and want things just they way they've always been. On the downside, the lack of evolution exposes some of the story's threadbare faults.
Rampant sexism and stereotypes inherent in the script haven't aged well, even when spun for comedic effect. Some of the particularly wince-inducing moments occur in the first act, when Henry buttonholes Eliza into a measure of indentured servitude.
The upshot is that Henry -- played with masterful precision by Laird Mackintosh -- is the buffoon who is sure he's the genius, and the unwitting butt of the social experiment he's conducting.
The show picks up steam after a bit of a stumbling, low-energy start, when the throwaway jokes fade into the background as the stakes rise and the nuances in the characters' conflicts deepen.
Fueled by a powerhouse lead performance by Shereen Ahmed, the production comes into its own in the second act as it continues to pick up momentum toward its emotionally-charged climax. She's got a powerful voice and uses it to cast an enchanting spell. Ahmed's show-stopping singing ability brings her solos to life in concert-style crescendos that echo through the audience.
Mackintosh's workmanlike showing paces the show, thanks to captivating chemistry with Kevin Pariseau as Col. Pickering. Scene-swiping Adam Grupper, swooping in as Alfred Doolittle, is always good for a smile.
The most awe-inspiring facet of the show is the production design. Thanks to clockwork-like orchestration from behind-the-scenes prop masters and smooth blocking by cast members, the set transforms massively from scene to scene, with towering backdrops and set pieces emerging and disappearing to fulfill the needs of the moment.
The makeup team, working in concert with Ahmed's acting, also deserves credit for the impressive transformation of Eliza from street urchin to society princess.
The melancholy conclusion speaks to female and low economic class empowerment, sending off the audience on a note of watershed social justice epiphany. This is a comedy with something to say, and its messages haven't faded since the 1950s. There's little doubt Julie Andrews would smile if she saw her show in this cast's able hands.
"My Fair Lady" plays at Centennial Hall through Jan. 9. Click here to buy tickets.