Sunday, September 19, 2010

My Fair Lady

Audience pleasing 'MY FAIR LADY' at Beck

The musical MY FAIR LADY, which is now on stage at Beck, is based rather literally on George Bernard Shaw's PYGMALION. Though it is considered by many critics to be the “perfect musical,” it almost never got to the stage. At first, Shaw refused permission for his play to be made into a musical fearing that his messages relating to his disdain of the English class system, the poor educational opportunities afforded the lower classes, the treatment of women by men, and his strong belief in voting rights for women, would get lost in the tendencies of the musicals of his day to be purely entertainment.

After Shaw's death, many attempts were made to transform the play into a musical, with little success. Even Rogers and Hammerstein failed. Finally, a script written by Alan Jay Lerner, with music by Frederick Loewe, was successful. The duo's key centered on basically inserting songs into the original dialogue, even using the dialogue as song lyrics.

The story concerns Eliza Doolittle, a Cockney flower girl who is cajoled into taking speech lessons from professor Henry Higgins, a phoneticist, so she can pass as a “proper lady.” Complications, of course set in, including Higgins' falling in love/like with Eliza, her father's flirtation with being sober and becoming a “gentleman,” and her successful transformation.

The story follows the format of Lerner and Loewe's general theme of the perfect place, time, and love story. Think BRIGADOON and CAMELOT.

The Broadway production, staged by Moss Hart, opened on March 15 1956 with Rex Harrison as Henry Higgins, Julie Andrews as Eliza Doolittle and Stanley Holloway as Alfred P. Doolittle. The show ran for 2,717 performances making it the longest running musical up to that time. It has received several Big Apple revivals. The show won every major theatrical award including The New York Drama Critics Circle Award, The Outer Critics Circle Award, and Tony Award for best musical.

The 1964 hit movie, which was directed by George Cukor, starred Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn (vocals dubbed by Marni Nixon), with Stanley Holloway reviving his role as Doolittle.

The show's glorious score includes: “Why Can't the English,” “With a Little Bit of Luck,” “Rain in Spain,” “I Could Have Danced All Night,” “Without You,” and “I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face.”

Beck's production, under the direction of Paul Gurgol, is pleasant, but not compelling. The entire production needed a faster pace and some song and characterization adjustments. The show, however, has many fine features.

George Roth is a total delight as Alfred P. Doolittle. He is a charming rogue with a twinkle in his eye and a bit of larceny in his soul. “Get Me to the Church on Time” is one of the show's visual highlights. Dana Hart makes for a believable Colonel Pickering, Higgins' sidekick with a heart. He nicely textured his performance.

Valerie Reaper makes the difficult transition from being Liza, the uneducated flower girl, to Eliza, the lady, with believability. She has an excellent singing voice, which was well displayed in “Just You Wait” and “Wouldn't It Be Loverly.” The chorus, though limited in numbers, sang well, but didn't have the people power to fill the theatre. Hester Lewellen was an appealing Mrs. Pearce. The Cockney Quartet had a nice sound.

Benjamin Czarnota (Freddy Eynsford-Hill) has a wonderful singing voice, but sings words rather than meanings, thus losing the impact of “Street Where You Live.” Bob Russell's take on Henry Higgins is somewhat problematic. Higgins must be egocentric, but must also have a vulnerable underbelly. Russell displayed the former, but when it came to the latter, he fell to melodrama. The back of a hand to the forehead, much like those used in silent films, was used to feign vulnerability. He also missed some of the charm needed to make us have a love/hate relationship with him as he dealt with Eliza. His talk-singing, ala Rex Harrison, was quite good.

As has become his custom, Larry Goodpaster, assembled an excellent group of musicians and backed up rather than drowning out the singers. A faster musical rate might have helped the languid pace of the show.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: As evidenced by the Sunday afternoon assemblage, Beck's MY FAIR LADY is a potential audience pleaser. Hopefully the languid pace and some characterization issues will be settled as the show goes through its run.