Sunday, June 7, 2015

"My Fair Lady"

My Fair Lady
Alan Jay Lerner (Book & Lyrics); Frederick Lowe (Music)
Fox Theatre, Redwood City

Through an imaginative set, a few clever directorial touches, and inspired casting of the lead heroine, Broadway By the Bay has staged a My Fair Lady that leaves its own unique niche in the long history of this much-produced gem of the American musical genre. 

Whether through staged or filmed versions of G.S. Shaw’s play Pygmalion or of this Lerner and Lowe musical, how can anyone who has ever stepped into live theatre or watched the TNT classic movie channel not know the basic story of the sharp-tongued, cockney flower girl of 1912 London who becomes a sophisticated princess due to a bet made between two old bachelor linguists?  Out to prove to the skeptical but congenial India-dialect specialist Colonel Pickering that the King’s English is the only factor separating the classes, Professor Henry Higgins eagerly takes on the task of teaching a young, uneducated but extremely street-smart Eliza Doolittle how to be a lady.  He does so through repeated, ad nauseam practice of now famous and comically mocked phrases like, “The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain.”  Along the way, this much-loved American musical tackles historical (and often reflects current) issues of class difference, treatment of women, and intellectual elitism.

Scenic designer Annie Dauber’s latticed, domed frame of a stage-filling glass palace serves all internal and external scenes equally well with just the twist of a few curtains or the lowering of appropriate lights or chandeliers.  It also resembles the birdcage our Professor Higgins has in his home, reflecting the sheltered and controlled life we see him live as well as highlighting the way he treats his caged Eliza like a private pet for his and Pickering’s amusement.

Stepping into roles that many stage and screen actors more famous than they have engrained in audience minds is not a small task for whomever tackles either Eliza or the Professor.  Both Samantha Williams and Scott Solomon admirably succeed in taking their places among this illustrious cadre.  As flower girl Eliza, Ms. Williams squeals, slinks, and sniffles her way to extra coinage and the attention of the nearby Higgins in the opening scenes.  Her cockney is shrill and convincing, and she sings and dances with contagious energy.  The subsequent, grueling vocal exercises she undergoes punctuated with her gobbling chocolates give way to an elegant, tall, and absolutely stunning lady whose signature I Could Have Danced All Night is beautifully rendered in full, almost operatic voice.  As an African-American playing Eliza, Ms. Williams naturally deepens the role by reminding us that the glass ceiling of this doomed palace world of 1912 restricts women and racial minorities alike.  Her casting is thus brilliant on many levels.

Photo by Mark Kitaoka and Tracy Martin
As the pushy, peppery professor, Mr. Solomon brings his own flair of egocentricity, stubbornness and full-steam-ahead persistence to his goal of winning a bet.  His Higgins also displays a boyish naivite toward everyday life and the people around him that is funny and a bit endearing.  Unlike some of his predecessors, this Higgins does not speak but actually half-sings many of his solos.  He gives numbers like I’m an Ordinary Man his own manner of alternating pensive reflection of loving his own solitude with a wonderfully frenetic panic about having “a woman in my life.”

Loud, long applause is the well-deserved reward for Sergey Khalikulov’s On the Street Where You Live when, as love-sick Freddy, he parks himself outside Eliza’s door and delivers and later reprises in clear, gorgeous baritone this famous anthem of admiration.  Full company numbers, energetically and pleasingly choreographed by Camille Edralin, are well-sung and fun to watch, especially in the beautiful period costumes provided by Valerie Emmi.  Disappointing, however, and not receiving the expected applause and immediate encore reprises are any numbers involving Alfred P. Doolittle.  We as My Fair Lady audiences are accustomed to this red-nosed, jolly (and ale-loaded) father of Eliza bringing us close to our feet With a Little Bit of Luck and Get Me to the Church on Time.  Neither number scores its potential in this production, mostly due to Gary Stanford, Jr.’s inability to pull off consistently a realistic cockney accent and due to his singing with too much guttural throat and not enough comic joy. 

Key for any modern My Fair Lady not to feel too dated is how the transformation of Eliza occurs in such a way that her new “princess” is in the end not seen as subordinate to her “prince,” an issue in many earlier film and stage versions.  Director Ken Savage has solved this issue in several subtle ways that make this production particularly satisfying – mostly in the winding down minutes of the play.  When Henry Higgins believes he has lost Eliza for good, he pines through song I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face, a song usually sung as he sits alone in his study.  Mr. Savage instead places him on the street outside, exactly in the same spot Freddy sang his love songs to Eliza.  This positioning helps us believe our egocentric Professor may in fact deep down be a suitor himself.  Along with a final, curtain-closing moment when Eliza literally has Henry eating out of her hand (versus the normal ending of her reluctantly handing him his slippers), directorial decisions begin to make a big difference in how we as a modern audience can accept this somewhat dated story.  Kudos to Mr. Savage.

All in all, this My Fair Lady may not rank as the most memorable ever production, but it certainly brings enough talent to enough key roles as well as some production and directorial decisions to make it a well-worth night on the town.

Broadway By the Bay’s My Fair Lady continues on the Fox Theatre stage in Redwood City though June 21, 2015, and plays June 27-28 on the Golden State Stage in Monterey.

Rating:  3 E’s

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