If ever there were a time and a place when race was a non-issue, it's certainly not contemporary America: a nation reeling from the deaths of too many young black men and from the backlash in communities like Ferguson, Missouri. It also wasn't in Edwardian England, when colonial Britain was engaged in the "Scramble for Africa," and the country's first race riots were on the verge of erupting.
Yet in staging the classic Lerner and Loewe musical, "My Fair Lady," set in London in the early years of the 20th century, Broadway By the Bay and director Ken Savage have made the curious choice of engaging in color-blind casting, then ignoring the issue of race entirely.
Closely based on George Bernard Shaw's 1913 play, "Pygmalion," "My Fair Lady" shares Shaw's attitude of bemused impatience with the rigid class structures and thinly veiled misogynism of Edwardian England, telling the story of a professor of phonetics who plucks a poor flower vendor from Covent Garden and bets a friend he can pass her for a high society lady in six months, simply by teaching her to speak with a posh accent (and lending her a few frocks). Both Shaw's play and the musical illuminate the injustice of a social system in which one can never escape the circumstances of one's birth, and to be born a woman -- of any class -- is a curse.
As Eliza, Samantha Williams is a delight: She boils over with self-righteous rage at the presumptuousness and disdain of her tutor, Professor Higgins (Scott Solomon), bubbles with glee at her developing linguistic accomplishments and, once she's mastered the new style of speech, clearly relishes her new-found power.
Williams differs from Eliza Doolittles of the past (among them Audrey Hepburn, Julie Andrews and Martine McCutcheon) in one obvious way: the color of her skin. She's black, as is actor Gary Stanford, who plays her father, Alfred P. Doolittle. Praveen Ramesh, who plays Higgins' ally Colonel Pickering, is Asian. It's a bold and interesting choice to cast actors who don't look like the waspy characters of Shaw's imagining, and yet, left unaddressed, the choice seems less like a progressive adaptation and more like an elephant in the room. In a play that asks audiences to consider the ways we are judged and discriminated against on the basis of superficial attributes, should we ignore the question of race? Should the audience suspend its disbelief that Higgins' impossibly prim, blue-blooded and lily-white Ascot crew would overlook a person's skin color so long as her diction passed muster? It's a glaring conundrum that goes unaddressed in this production, to its detriment. There's a missed opportunity here to enhance the comedy or the social commentary -- or both.
Nevertheless, the Higgins vs. Doolittle virtual boxing match makes for an entertaining spectacle. Standouts in a uniformly strong cast include Kristina Hudelson as Mrs. Pearce, the fastidious housekeeper whose buttoned-up propriety and ultimate generosity invoke Phyllis Logan's unimpeachable Mrs. Hughes of "Downton Abbey," and Sergey Khalikulov as hapless young aristocrat Freddy Eynsford-Hill, whose giddy declaration of love to Eliza ("On the Street Where You Live") is sheer Broadway bliss.
Yet, it's Eliza, she whose life has been miraculously transformed by language, who sternly reminds Freddy of its limits. "Don't talk of June, don't talk of fall, don't talk at all! Show me!" she insists, reminding audiences yet again that despite its power to charm and seduce, speech transcends neither action nor appearance.
Questions of race aside, Williams' "fair" lady comes across loud and clear as she grimly expresses the irony of her plight, where a rise in social status is accompanied by a loss of personal independence.
"I sold flowers," she reminds Higgins; "I didn't sell myself. Now you've made a lady of me, I'm not fit to sell anything else."
Both Lerner's lyrics and his dialogue are full of such whiz-bang lines.
"By right she should be taken out and hung," sings Higgins, "for the cold-blooded murder of the English tongue."
While Higgins spews outrageous insults -- in beautifully enunciated Queen's English, naturally -- his friend and fellow linguist Pickering flaps about comically in an ineffectual attempt at damage control. In contrast, Higgins' regally composed mother (Karen DeHart) is inured to his abrasive personality, applauding Eliza's instinct to fight back.
Scenic designer Annie Dauber conjures a glass conservatory that serves equally well as the arches of Covent Garden as it does Higgins' sitting room. Either way, it's a looming structure that despite its graceful lines seems to cage in its occupants -- an apt visual metaphor for the strictures of Edwardian society. Elaborate costumes by Valerie Emmi are a treat, particularly in ensemble scenes like at the opening day of Ascot, where the ladies glide by in floor-length blue-and-white gowns, lace-festooned hats and white parasols while the gentlemen sport waistcoats and bow ties, top hats and tails.
Below the action on stage, a live orchestra conducted by Jesse Sanchez keeps Loewe's catchy numbers coming, from "I Could Have Danced All Night" to "Get Me to the Church on Time." And though the waltzing at the embassy ball is a bit stilted, some of the other dance numbers, including Eliza's drunken dustman father and his friends carousing in the streets in "With a Little Bit of Luck," are simply delightful.
For those seeking an evening of light entertainment and able to achieve a temporary state of color-blindness, the production will certainly satisfy. Others will likely leave the theater asking questions about the place of race in relation to issues of class and gender.
And that's not such a bad thing.
What: "My Fair Lady," presented by Broadway By the Bay
Where: Fox Theatre, 2215 Broadway St., Redwood City
When: Through June 21, with shows Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m., plus Saturday, June 13, at 2 p.m.
Info: Go to broadwaybythebay.org or call 650-579-5565.