THE BASICS: The legendary Lerner and Loewe
musical, based upon Shaw’s own PYGMALION, has set up shop at the
Festival Theatre in Niagara-on-the-Lake, where it plays in repertory all
the way ’til October 30th. It’s a large, colorful, tuneful package;
plan on three hours with the single intermission.
SKETCH: London, just before the Great War. Can Professor Henry
Higgins–brilliant but eccentric elocutionist and “confirmed old
bachelor”–transform scruffy Cockney flower-seller Eliza Doolittle into a
lady, on a bet? And if so, can he resist his own magnificent creation?
THE CAST: Shaw and Stratford Festival veteran Benedict Campbell
makes a very satisfying Henry Higgins. He has it all down–the casual
genius, the old-slippers charm, the exasperating callousness and
misogyny–and he carries the show very handily. He even sings well, and a
lot more of the notes than Rex Harrison ever did (though I will confess
a preference for Harrison’s wonderfully expressive talk-singing)!
his snow white mane, Patrick Galligan is a lot more lively and youthful
than your average Colonel Pickering. It does the show no harm, I’d
say. In fact, it is Galligan’s infectious joy that makes “The Rain in
Spain” the highlight number that it is.
Strangely, it is Deborah
Hay in the title role that is this production’s weakest link. Hers is a
strangely cool, clipped and combative Eliza. She looks great, and does
her transformation nicely, but fails to generate the warmth and
sympathy we need to be on her side. The fault could perhaps lie with
director Molly Smith, who may be going for a tougher, feministic
approach. But Eliza is no suffragette; all she really wants is to be
treated with a little kindness and respect. That she fails to find this
in her new and improved circumstances is what makes her plight so
pitiable. For whatever reason, Ms. Hay tends to rob us of our rooting
interest, and this in turn cuts heart out of the show.
Barclay, a Shaw veteran all too often relegated to support, gets a
leading role at last, and has a field day as Alfred P. Doolittle,
Eliza’s reprobate father. For a great large man, Barclay is incredibly
light on his feet, and his fancy stepping contributes in no small
measure to the success of his two great numbers: “A Little Bit of Luck”
and “Get Me to the Church on Time”. But is in the wry dialogue that he
sparkles most; the A. Doolittle/Higgins encounter is an absolute
delight (and as close to pure Shaw as MY FAIR LADY gets).
also to the wonderful Sharry Flett, who shines in the small but special
role of Higgins’ mother. Mark Uhre makes a good Freddy Eynsford-Hill,
and sings “On the Street Where You Live” with great aplomb.
PRODUCTION: The design work by Ken MacDonald (sets) and Adam Larsen
(projections–in this case, flying birds and racing horses) is pretty
spectacular, with MacDonald subtly adding layers of meaning with his
bird-in-a-cage motif. Director Molly Smith seems to want to jazz/liven
up a show that doesn’t need it, in my opinion. Judith Bowden’s costumes
are a mixed bag–some elegant, others truly unfortunate (the gaudy,
tropically-inspired women’s outfits at Ascot go a long way toward
undermining the whole scene). The pit orchestra is just fine, light and
crisp, never drowning out Lerner’s outstanding lyrics. Fifty-some years
later, Loewe’s melodies still beguile.
FINAL THOUGHTS: Yes, I
have my reservations, but as a total experience, this MY FAIR LADY is
decidedly positive. There’s so much great stuff in the show, and so much
here that is done so well, you can forgive this production its flaws.
If you haven’t seen the show before (or not in a long while), I’d
strongly consider making the trip up to lovely Niagara-on-the-Lake…
*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)
ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless
there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are
the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.
TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.
THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.
FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.
FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!