Thursday, October 12, 2006

My Fair Lady (Cleveland Play House)

Must see ‘MY FAIR LADY’ at CPH

Cleveland area theatres are in the midst of a series of “let’s take a different approach to scripts” experiences. A male Hamlet, an all male Shakespeare presentation and now, Cleveland Play House’s totally off-beat production of ‘MY FAIR LADY,’ a very, very traditional musical.

‘MY FAIR LADY,’ with lyrics and book by Alan Jay Lerner and music by Frederick Loewe opened on Broadway is in 1956 . In contrast to popular belief, it was not a direct adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s ‘PYGMALION,’ but was based on a screenplay adopted by Gabriel Pascal which had been based on the Shaw play, which was based on the Roman myth of Pygmalion. The stage musical was made into a popular film in 1964. A contemporary version of the Pygmalion motif was developed in the 1980s play, ‘EDUCATING RITA.’

The Broadway version, which starred Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews, ran for 2717 performances, a Broadway record at the time. It introduced the world to “Why Can’t the English,” “With a Little Bit of Luck,” “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly,” “I Could Have Danced All Night,” “Get Me to the Church on Time,” and “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face.”

The play, which takes place in 1910, centers on Henry Higgins, an opinionated linguistics professor and confirmed bachelor, who makes a bet that within six months he can transform an uneducated cockney flower seller, Eliza Doolittle, into a lady who can take her place in high society. Eliza agrees to take the lessons in order to fulfill her dream of working in a flower shop. Higgins wins the bet, but doesn't bargain for the profound effect Eliza has had on his life. Melded into the story line are Shaw’s attacks on the British social structure and educational system.

The original Playbill and cast album included art by Al Hirschfeld, which depicted Eliza Doolittle as a marionette being manipulated by Henry Higgins, whose own strings are being pulled by a heavenly puppeteer who looks like George Bernard Shaw. Some Shaw experts were quite offended by Hirschfield’s depiction, because they felt that Shaw’s statement regarding the battle of women to be independent beings was misrepresented by the puppet characterization.

Going to see yet another production of ‘MY FAIR LADY’ did not excite me. I’ve seen the play over twenty times. Well...I was in for a big surprise! The CPH production breaks the traditional staging patterns used for a presentation of ‘MY FAIR LADY.’ There is no set, per se, and no orchestra in the pit. Instead, two pianos stand center stage surrounded by bleachers on which the chorus sits throughout the show. For the various roles the chorus puts on costumes which have been distributed around the stage. Instead of a realistic look, we are confronted by the alienation style of Bertolt Brecht. We know that we are in the theatre, we see all the costume and setting changes. For some this will be off-setting, but for those who are willing to trust director Amanda Dehnert’s concept, the results are glorious.

Dehnert takes the audience into the story with creative staging, wonderful shticks and gimmicks and clarity of song lyrics. Except for making the audience continually blink away the glaring electric lights of a MY FAIR LADY sign above the action, the alienation works to enhance the goings-on.

Devon Painter’s costumes are splendid. She even breaks the tradition of having the Ascot racing scene done in black and white costumes. (BTW...the reason for the traditional dominance of black clothing in that segment was because King Edward VII died on May 6, 1910, the traditional opening date of the Ascot season, the year in which the play is set.)

Don Wadsworth does a great job of working with the dialects. Kelli Wicke Davis’s choreography lacks panache, and he is hampered by the Bolton’s small stage and having a cast that is mainly actors and singers and not dancers.

Vocal Supervisor Tim Robertson has done an excellent job making sure Lerner’s lyrics, which integrate perfectly into the spoken script, are given meaning. This is usually not the case in many productions where the musical sound is often stressed over the ideas of the lyrics. Except for some blending problems with the male chorus, and some upper range issues with Rachel Warren (Eliza), the music was wonderful. It was also nice to have a Henry Higgins who can actually sing, rather than using a cadence count for the songs. Backing up the dual pianos (well played by Bill Corcoran and Tim Robertson) with random violins and a cello, enhanced the musical sound.

The cast is wonderful. Rachael Warren gives a non-Julie Andrews take to Eliza. She is more appropriately earthy, even when she becomes a “lady.” Timothy Crowe, is a more human Henry Higgins than was Rex Harrison. He embodies the role with clueless arrogance. George McDaniel makes the understanding Colonel Pickering a perfect counter to the emotionally retarded Higgins. Larry Daggett is right on target as Eliza’s father. The chorus fulfills their multi-roles with acting quality.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Amanda Dehnert’s take on ‘MY FAIR LADY’ gives new life to the show. The CPH production is one for everyone to see...both those who have experienced the script before and those who have not had the delightful pleasure of seeing Shaw’s ideas morphed into a musical through the talents of Lerner and Loewe.