September 23, 2008

Remarkable Re-Invention of a Musical Favorite


By Mal Vincent

The Virginian-Pilot

IN "MY FAIR LADY," arguably the greatest musical in our theatrical tradition, there is always what should be that triumphant moment when Eliza Doolittle, the Cockney flower girl who is so "deliciously low," finally learns to rise above her class and speak correctly.

Tentatively, she twists her formerly common tongue around the phrasing of "the rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain."

"She's got it. By George, she's got it!" exclaims the weary Professor Henry Higgins, the phonetics expert who has undertaken to thumb his nose at society by passing off the guttersnipe as a proper lady at the upcoming Embassy Ball.

At that moment, when the musical is well-performed, we can exult in another evening fueled by the wit and wisdom of Alan Jay Lerner's lyrics and, to a slightly lesser degree, by Frederick Loewe's music. If actors can merely speak these lines discernibly, they are half- way to paradise because there has never, musically, been such a contentious and equally matched battle of the sexes as this. This is one of the great love stories of all theater . It is brittle, cutting and sparked by a cynicism of the very class system it sustains.

Higgins is doomed, we're afraid, to finally succumb to the lure of Eliza, but what a battle! What a night! What a delight "My Fair Lady" is!

The Virginia Stage Company's "Lady" is not just a revival of a classic that debuted on Broadway in 1956 and has been through transformations from grandeur to high school productions since. This is a remarkable re-invention of the play that is campy, wise, mischievous and utterly different from any "My Fair Lady" production you've seen before.

The real fair lady here is Amanda Dehnert, who has done some devilishly clever things with the old warhorse in adapting it to a plain playing area (the brick wall of the historic Wells Theater replacing the usual sets) and a two-piano arrangement of the score.

VSC has been under bombardment for years to do musicals, yet both the theater and the budget prevent a full orchestra. How, possibly, could a show as big as "My Fair Lady" be adapted to a two-piano scenario?

Luckily, Lerner and Loewe already thought of that and reworked it for small-town productions - as in no orchestra. That left it up to Dehnert to adapt it to her stage.

She has moved the actors and the lyrics forward to emphasize the intimacy and sparkling wit rather than the trappings. We're not advocating that sets and costumes aren't important, but the result here gives an entirely new experience. Dehnert uses the familiarity of the classic to whisk us through scenes that need no embellishment.

Has the stodgy, but highly popular, ballad "On the Street Where You Lived" ever been played for such humor? Freddy Eynsford-Hill, the upper-class slacker who falls in love with the transformed Eliza, was always something of a fool, but Jamie LaVerdiere turns him into a likably smitten clown .

The director uses the pianos at center stage as more than just music boxes. Eliza lounges on them after dancing all night and even reaches over to turn a page for a deadpan Bill Corcoran, who seems determined to not be distracted by the play around him.

But all this would be for naught if we didn't have a fair lady. Eliza and Mama Rose in "Gypsy" are the two greatest women's roles in musical theater. We've gone from Julie Andrews' perky soprano on Broadway to the elegance of Audrey Hepburn on film to hundreds of also-rans.

Jessie Austrian, who has the role here, is a delight who brings something new that goes with the staging. Most Elizas are recognizably a burgeoning lady too early in the game. Austrian captures that "middle" period of Eliza, the vulnerable, saucy common girl who is learning.

Austrian has played this version before during its incarnations at the Actors Theater of Louisville and The Cleveland Playhouse. Sassy and forceful, her Eliza is no wilting flower and, with a flash of those eyes, we know Higgins doesn't have a chance.

Timothy Crowe's Henry Higgins is serviceable, but why were his numbers at a noticeably faster pace than hers, making them almost become patter songs? These lines, in any case, should be acted, not sung, but he rectifies himself well in the finale, admitting to growing accustomed to her face.

Alfred Doolittle, Eliza's common-man father, should be older and more folksy than suggested by Mark Peckham . For whatever reason, he couldn't command center stage for all of the dance segment of his two songs, "Get Me to the Church on Time" and "With a Little Bit of Luck." We've always thought those songs seemed as if they came from another show anyway.

Kelli Wicke Davis' choreography was sprightly in a traditional way. Nothing original here, but, still, the dancers couldn't handle it - missing lifts and turns. Costumingwise, one could have hoped for something different, maybe mod or stylish for Eliza's ballgown. The poor girl here looks more as if she's going to a high school prom.

Dehnert makes a bum choice in the staging of the finale. It would have been much more dramatic to have just the two leads onstage, as she appears from nowhere and is, quietly, acknowledged by him. It is a mistake to bring the entire chorus into the scene .

But there are wonderfully original moments such as when Eliza walks out on Higgins in a huff . We hear her footsteps re sound throughout the theater as she storms out and finally opens the rear stage door to go, yes, out onto the Norfolk street beyond.

There are plenty of wonderfully original moments that make this "My Fair Lady" a musical unto itself. The cobwebs are effectively swept away.

Mal Vincent, (757) 446-2347, [email protected]



What The Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe musical, adapted from George Bernard Shaw's play "Pygmalion"

When Through Oct. 5: 7 p.m. Tuesdays; 8 p.m. Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays; 4 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays, and 7 p.m. Sept. 28.

Where Wells Theatre, Monticello Avenue and Tazewell Street, Norfolk

Tickets $29.50-$42.50, (757) 671-8100

Originally published by BY MAL VINCENT.

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