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A CurtainUp Berkshire Review
My Fair Lady
Since the original stage version zoomed Julie Andrews to stardom and Rex Harrison proved that Professor Higgins was an unforgettable musical role that could be spoken as effectively as sung countless performers have played Eliza and her hateful but charming professor. The recognition value of the show's songs seeded a delightful spoof of "I Think I've Got It" that has contributed to the popularity of a new Off-Broadway musical Bat Boy (see link below to our review). And as the lavish London revival is currently the hot ticket in that town, so the more modestly staged production that is closing the Berkshire Theatre Festival's Main Stage season should be an equally sought after ticket.
Aided by a gifted production team, Eric Hill, whose long association with BTF have honed his instincts for dealing with the rather musical unfriendly Main Stage has succeeded in making this Fair Lady look very fair indeed. Covent Garden serves as the main set which features just a suggestion of the bar where the rascally Alfred P. Doolittle hangs out with his chums. Roll-out panels and props shift the scene as needed -- to the Professor's study, the street outside his Wimpole Street home and the Eliza's famous social debut in the "Ascot Gavotte" episode The musical directors, Deborah Lapidus and her associate Robert Webb (who also conducts and plays the piano) have adroitly created an orchestra out of two pianos, a violin, accordion, tuba and one-man percussion, with all but the pianists taking an active role in the production. This works to good effect, serving up the familiar songs with a freshness that brought the opening night audience to its feet for a standing ovation.
Maureen O'Flynn, who has undergone her own transformation from local talent to Metropolitan Opera diva, is a generally splendid Eliza who believably changes before our eyes from guttersnipe to lady. If she is a bit too mature to add the May-December flavor of the original Rex Harrison-Julie Harrison/Audrey Hepburn casting, this is offset by her fine interpretation of Eliza' spirit and determination and her emotionally resonant singing. O'Flynn's gift for the comic is splendidly displayed when she divulges less than genteel details about her aunt's death with her properly-trained accent to the snooty Ascot crowd, making Higgins wince but winning the heart of Freddie Eynsford-Hill who calls her colorful speech patterns "the new small talk".
Speaking of Freddie, Todd Almond brings considerable charm and a fine voice to the part even though it seems to have been rather drastically cut in the interest of trimming the show to 2 1/2 hours. Despite this scaling down he gets to reprise the lovely "On the Street Where You Live." It is on this same street that Higgins' final wistful realization that "I've Grown Accustomed to Your Charms" begins. This interim episode, also used in Trevor Nunn's London production, makes for a more poignant reconciliation than the usual ending which has Higgins going directly to his study.
The rest of the supporting cast, performs with consummate skill. Tom Blair is an endearing Colonel Pickering, Lenka Peterson's Mrs. Higgins a petite but imposing bundle of sharp-tongued motherhood and Anne O'Sullivan a fine Mrs. Pearce. The various ensemble singers and dancers are best summed up with a paraphrase: I could have listened all night to those butler and maid choruses.
People remembering Stanley Holloway and other more beer-bellied Alfred P. Doolittles, may at first glance find Walter Hudson a bit too tall and lean for the crusty ne'er-do-well. (Hudson was last seen as Dick Deadeye in the BTF's season opening H.M.S. Pinafore, directed by this production's leading man -- linked below). He quickly dispels any misgivings with his wry spoken and sung line delivery and his considerable dance skills, highlighted in "I'm Getting Married In the Morning." This is the evening 's biggest and most enjoyable production number and rates a special hurrah for Hudson and company and choreographer Gerry McIntyre.
The concessions made to a leaner productions are all easy to live with (Olivera Gajic's costumes are splendid enough overall to overlook the visually disappointing racetrack scene in which only Eliza evokes a bit of Cecil Beaton's memorable black and white palette). On the other hand, James Warwick proves himself less apt as a musical star than as a director. He cuts a dashing figure on stage and does warm up to the role of the taskmaster who finds his match in the flower girl with the painfully enunciated syllables. Enjoyable as it can be to hear the part sung (to wit-- Jonathan Pryce in the London revival and the fine-voiced Higgins in a revival put on at the MacHaydn several seasons ago (see link below), this is not the case here. Warwick's s singing voice is thin and reedy and he would have done better elocuting the lyrics à la Rex Harrison. As sung by this Higgins, some of Lerner's brilliant lyrics tend to lose their luster and clarity.
Just in case anyone reading this review needs a refresher of the plot, it's all neatly summed up in Higgins' own words after Eliza comes to his house to hire him to teach her to speak well enough to work in a flower shop instead of on the streets. He takes her on and lays out the rules of the game: "You are to stay here for the next six months learning to speak beautifully, like a lady in a florist's shop. At the end of six months you will be taken to an embassy ball in a carriage, beautifully dressed. If the king finds out you are not a lady, you will be taken to the Tower of London, where your head will be cut off as a warning to other presumptuous flower girls! If you are not found out, you shall be given a present of six and seven to start life with in a lady's shop. " What neither Eliza or Higgins count on is the emotional turmoil resulting from that transforming six months.
And what this show, my quibbles notwithstanding, proves is that there's plenty of life in the old girl and watching watching Higgins discover his humanity as he takes on the irresistible challenge of rescuing Eliza from being ""a prisoner of the gutters/ Condemned by every syllable she utters". The Professor may be just "An Ordinary Man" and Warwick just an ordinary Higgins, but My Fair Lady remains an extraordinary musical.
A video of the award-winning 1964 film is available in VHS and DVD format. It stars Rex Harrison and Stanley Holloway from the original but Audrey Hepburn beat out the original Eliza, Julie Andrews, for the part, with Marni Nixon dubbing the songs.
DVD edition. . . VHS edition
Bat Boy the off-Broadway hit worth seeing if only for the spoof of "I Think I've Got It"
CurtainUp's review of the 1999 revival of My Fair Lady (Mac-Haydn)