A new, old iteration of ‘My Fair Lady’ opens at Benedum on Jan. 30
TheaterShow runs through Feb. 4

A new, old iteration of ‘My Fair Lady’ opens at Benedum on Jan. 30

The production harks back to George Bernard Shaw's original intent in "Pygmalion"

Anette Barrios-Torres as Eliza Doolittle, and the company of the national tour of "My Fair Lady" (Photo by Joan Marcus)
Anette Barrios-Torres as Eliza Doolittle, and the company of the national tour of "My Fair Lady" (Photo by Joan Marcus)

The last time Nick Berke came to Pittsburgh, the Jewish community here was still reeling from the most violent antisemitic attack in U.S. history, which happened just three weeks earlier.

It was the third week of November 2018, and Berke was performing in the touring production of “Fiddler on the Roof” at the Benedum Center.

About two-thirds of the cast was Jewish, including Berke.

“That was an experience that I think none of us will ever forget,” said Berke, who will return to Pittsburgh with the touring production of “My Fair Lady,” which runs at the Benedum Jan. 30-Feb. 4. “The moment we found out that [the synagogue shooting] happened, we were like, ‘What can we do? How can we involve ourselves?’”

The company decided to offer all its complimentary tickets and house seats to those affected by the massacre.

“That week, that community could come see our show,” Berke said.

While he doesn’t necessarily want that experience to define his relationship with Pittsburgh, he said, recalling that time “makes me very excited to come back to what was a very, very special and meaningful, tragic week.”

Nick Berke (Photo courtesy of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust)
Berke, who grew up in the suburbs of Los Angeles, graduated from New York University in 2015 and has been on the road with touring productions since 2017, including four years with “Fiddler” and some time with “A Chorus Line,” including in Japan. He’s been touring with “My Fair Lady,” Lerner and Loewe’s musical version of George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion,” since September 2022, serving as dance captain, assistant choreographer and swing performer.

Berke attended Hebrew school and had a bar mitzvah at his family’s Reform synagogue in California, but afterward, “like a lot of folks,” he said, became a bit disconnected from his Jewish identity.
It was reignited, though, when he went on tour with “Fiddler,” during which the cast lit Chanukah candles and attended High Holiday services together. It was a sense of family, he said.

“I kind of found this reinvigorating of my own Jewish identity,” Berke said. “And it was not something I ever in a million years expected that could happen from a musical, but ironically, the first musical I ever did in my entire life was ‘Fiddler,’ back in high school, so it was like kind of a full-circle moment. … It made me remember how I was raised and confront beliefs and stuff that I thought about growing up. And my Jewish identity, I attribute it today to that experience.”

“My Fair Lady,” another classic musical, also celebrates themes of identity, especially in its current iteration, a revival that premiered at Lincoln Center in 2018. While the script and songs are largely intact, the staging was tweaked to align more closely with Shaw’s 1912 version — counterintuitively making the show more relevant to 21st-century feminist sensibilities.

“We’ve actually restored the original intended ending of George Bernard Shaw,” Berke said. “And so, not only is it relevant now, but it actually is truer to the basis of the story and where it came from.”

For Hollywood to greenlight the 1964 film version with Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison, Berke said, “It essentially had to be romanticized well beyond what was ever intended. And so what we’ve restored is kind of the original intent.”

“George Bernard Shaw was a huge feminist and super-progressive, especially for his time, and he belonged to a sect of society in London that is on par with progressive society today in the U.S. in terms of social issues and equality,” Berke said. “And so saying it’s relevant to the 21st century is very true, but there’s a pretty direct parallel to what is progressive today and what is the norm today, and what this sect of British society believed in back in 1912.”

Other aspects of “Pygmalion” missing from the “My Fair Lady” film also become more apparent in this production, Berke said, pointing to the character of Eliza’s father, Alfred Doolittle, who can be seen as a surrogate for the playwright.

“He is like the proxy for George Bernard Shaw in the show,” Berke said. “At first, Bernard Shaw was a character and was putting his full point of view and his full worldview forward into the play. He is the character of Eliza’s father and like that whole moral compass.”

The producers of the film, Berke said, leaned heavily into the romantic aspect of the story “because they knew that was what would sell,” rather than going back to the intent of the piece, including its commentary on class distinctions.

In this production, one “interesting moral question” that comes to light — including through the character of Alfred Doolittle — is: Are the lower classes “actually the most morally sound because of the actions and things that middle- and upper-middle-class folks do and perpetrate onto the ‘undeserving poor?’” Berke said. “If these people in the upper classes or middle classes are actually not very good people and doing not great things, isn’t it more morally sound to be of the poor? And why would they want to leave that class if that class is actually the good people?”

While the show is “pretty close to the original Broadway production,” Berke said, if the audience notices any changes, they are “essentially taken straight out of ‘Pygmalion.’” PJC

Toby Tabachnick can be reached at ttabachnick@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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