Class warfare takes center stage in “My Fair Lady.”

"My Fair Lady" is being produced now at the Lakeland Community Theatre. (Photo by Michael Freeman).

LAKELAND – The recent political debates among the Republican presidential candidates have tended to evolve around social issues – the so-called “culture wars,” you could say – but it’s also interesting that the recent presidential primary in Michigan put an interesting spotlight on another issue: class warfare.
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum  framed the debate in this way: he had a much better understanding of the needs and concerns of average, blue collar Michigan voters than his chief rival, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who grew up the son of a governor, and is now worth more than $200 million. There was plenty of attention given to Romney’s so-called “gaffes,” where he supposedly reinforced his image as a man of wealth who lived in a parallel universe from struggling ordinary workers.
Curiously, this debate seemed to put Romney on the defensive, as he struggled to convince voters that he wasn’t some rich elitist who lived in an ivory tower. The fascinating backdrop to all this is the rather subliminal message that being rich, well educated and highly successful in business isn’t such a good thing after all; being a common man is where it’s at.
I couldn’t help but be reminded of all this while I was seated in the Lakeland Community Theatre, watching their revival of the classic Broadway musical “My Fair Lady.” How does a musical relate to current politics? Well, “My Fair Lady,” it should be noted, tackled the issue of wealth, privilege and advanced learning and whether it’s vastly superior to the humble ways of commoners decades before this became a political hot potato in our current presidential race.
After all, the utter disdain that Professor Henry Higgins shows for the street urchin Eliza Doolittle and her cockney pronunciations of the English language raises that eternal question: can the most successful, educated and elite among us help the folks at the bottom of the ladder rise up and improve their lot in life? Or is this merely snobbery masquerading as a drive to assist those below our stature?
Taken from the play “Pygmalion” by George Bernard Shaw, “My Fair Lady” adds a lot of very catchy and appealing songs to the story, and the Lakeland Community Theatre delivers with some first rate choreography performed by a talented cast of singers and dancers. The story is delightfully comical as Eliza and Henry engage in a somewhat unfair battle of “wits,” the songs quite good, and it all moves along at an enjoyable pace.
And yet … at the same time there’s that fascinating undercurrent about class warfare and just how complex it can get. If you’ve ever wondered why Romney ever felt a need to run away from an upper class childhood, Ivy League education and thriving business career that brought him millions, watch “My Fair Lady” and you’ll likely gain a keen understanding.
Because in Henry Higgins, we have at times one of the great monsters of the stage or screen. Brilliant, yes, with a sharp-wit and a keen intellect – except that his solid breeding and professional studies haven’t done much for his personality. He’s arrogant, pompous, snobby, and looks down on anyone beneath his own class. Henry’s academic theory is that the accent and tone of a person’s voice will determine their future prospects in society. As an experiment, he suggests to a colleague that he can teach a woman to speak “properly” and pass her off as a duchess at an embassy ball. He decides to make Eliza his first pupil; she seems like the ideal choice as an impoverished woman living in the slums who sells flowers to survive. Henry then wages war on her supposedly low-class Cockney accent.
There isn’t an awful lot to like or appreciate about Henry in the beginning, as he urges his housekeeper to thrash Eliza if she doesn’t conform. Henry’s insistence on ridicule and humiliation as a form of improving a student seems more insulting and grating than enlightening. And despite those lovely songs to carry you along, there’s a certain amount of sadness in watching Eliza, initially so defiant, start to conform to Henry, first by finally breaking through her accent and adopting the more sophisticated one that Henry prefers, then starting to fall in love with the man who spent so much time denigrating her. Maybe we all secretly wish we could find a Henry Higgins who would commit themselves to improving who we are and making us something better, but talk about a rocky ride along the way.
If anything, the Lakeland Community Theatre’s timing of a “My Fair Lady” revival in this presidential year is an ironic and clever choice. George Bernard Shaw wrote his play in 1912, it was made into a movie in 1938, and “My Fair Lady” became an Academy Award-winning film by 1964 — the same year Romney’s father, George Romney, was serving as Michigan’s governor. Forty-eight years later, the story’s class warfare themes seem as sharp and relevant as ever.
Both John Hatfield as Henry and Rachel Stargel as Eliza do quite well in this production, although I found Hatfield’s clothing a distraction, since his sweater gave him an uncanny resemblance to Mister Rogers, and I kept expecting him to start singing “It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” at any moment.
And there are more than a few scene-stealing moments by Donald Speirs as Alfred P. Doolittle, Eliza’s father, who spots a golden economic opportunity when his daughter moves into Henry’s lavish home for her “education.” Speirs is not only a very funny comedic talent, but also an invigorating singer and dancer.
Hot button social issues don’t have to be on your mind when you’re watching “My Fair Lady”; you can enjoy this battle of the sexes by sitting back and being charmed by songs as good as “With a Little Bit of Luck,” “Wouldn’t It Be Lovely” and “Get Me to the Church on Time.” Kudos as well as choreographer Caroline Williams, who keeps the performers on their toes, so to speak. But in my view, being reminded of how timeless the play’s central themes are only makes the show that much more effective today.
“My Fair Lady” plays through Sunday, March 11 at the Lakeland Community Theatre, 121 S. Lake Ave., in downtown Lakeland. Show times are Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and 2 p.m. on Sundays.
Tickets are $20 for adults, $15 for college students and $10 for children 12 and under. To make reservations, call 863-603-PLAY (7529) or log on to www.lakelandcommunitytheatre.com.

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