My Fair Lady
by Anthony Chase
MusicalFare pays tribute to the American musical's Golden Age
In The Drowsy Chaperone, the 2006 show about one man’s obsession with Broadway musicals, the lead character contrasts the shows of Broadway’s Golden Age with the musicals of today: “You know there was a time when people sat in darkened theaters and thought to themselves, ‘What have George and Ira got for me tonight?’ Or ‘Can Cole Porter pull it off again?’ Can you imagine? Now it’s, ‘Please, Elton John. Must we continue this charade?’”
There was a time, from the 1940s to the 1960s, when the Broadway musical was positioned at the center of American popular culture. Broadway stars were celebrities, known by every American from coast to coast. From the very beginning of television in the 1940s and into the 1970s, numbers from Broadway shows were featured on variety programs like The Ed Sullivan Show, and were seen by every American. Long after their Broadway careers were over, stars like Ethel Merman and Mary Martin were still household names.
By contrast, today’s teenaged fans of shows like Glee are likely to be unfamiliar even with the careers of Bernadette Peters or Patti LuPone, much less Donna Murphy or Brian Stokes Mitchell. A young actor recently opined to me that Miss Peters is an inappropriate choice to replace Hollywood’s Catherine Zeta-Jones in A Little Night Music on Broadway.
Buffalo has a vitally active theater scene, but we are arguably deficient in opportunities to see Golden Age musicals. We have musical revues aplenty, and we see many an off-Broadway tuner too. Shea’s provides us with first-rate tours of the newest titles and will sometimes toss us a Sound of Music or Fiddler on the Roof. But by and large, the great shows of the Golden Age are not done at all, or are relegated to community theater and educational productions.
How refreshing it is, then, to see MusicalFare take on one of the greatest musicals of them all, Lerner and Loewe’s 1956 masterpiece, My Fair Lady, even in a scaled-down, two-piano version. Moreover, it is thrilling to see the company score a bull’s-eye with this intimate but opulently charming rendition of the show.
For those who need to be told, My Fair Lady is a musical adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion. The play took its title from Ovid’s tale of a sculptor who falls in love with a statue of a woman he has carved, but is not based on that story. Rather, Shaw’s Pygmalion follows Eliza Doolittle, a common flower girl in 1912 London who wants to raise her social stature by learning to speak proper upper-class English. Professor Henry Higgins, a celebrated dialect expert, accepts this challenge after his colleague, Colonel Pickering, wagers that he will fail. Success will be determined by whether or not Higgins can pass Eliza off as a duchess at an embassy ball.
Susan Drozd, who directs an uncommonly strong cast in the MusicalFare production, was surprised, when she began to assemble the show, to realize that the material was unfamiliar to many members of the company. Some had not even seen the 1964 George Cukor film in which Rex Harrison recreated his performance as Higgins and Audrey Hepburn (augmented by the singing of Marnie Nixon) famously replaced Julie Andrews in her star-making role.
This lack of familiarity with a seminal work is a generational difference between today’s up-and-coming theater practitioners and those who came before.
When I was growing up, at the tail end of the Golden Age of Musical Theater, there was no Sirius XM radio or video on demand, but we listened to original cast recordings on vinyl LPs over and over again. Through repetition, we memorized the lyrics, complete with the inflections of the stars who first sang them.
Between the ages of seven and 14, I heard the original cast recordings of such Golden Age musicals as My Fair Lady, Guys and Dolls, The Music Man, Gypsy, and South Pacific literally thousands upon thousands of times. All of these shows were written before I was born, and yet they were entirely familiar to me. I recently startled a local actor who had previously played Mr. Applegate in Damn Yankees and who will be playing the role again later this summer by knowing the lyrics to the show-stopping number, “The Good Old Days,” better than he did.
I even recall where the pops and scratches were on those records. In fact, to this day, any member of my family who sings “Good Night My Someone” from The Music Man will imitate the skip caused when our English Setter collided with the hi-fi, leaving Barbara Cook afflicted with an eternal “Now good- Now good- Now good- Now good- Now good- scraaaatch- niiiight, my someone good night!”
My experience is not unusual.
Drozd is significantly younger than I, but apparently comes from the same tradition. I can understand her surprise at this gap of experience, and was a little unsettled myself, when actors in the MusicalFare production occasionally hesitated on lyrics. To me, forgetting the lyrics of My Fair Lady is like drawing a blank on the Lord’s Prayer or the Pledge of Allegiance. Reciting the words to “Ascot Gavotte,” “Without You,” or “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” is as second nature as breathing out and breathing in.
Make no mistake, I was entirely delighted by the production. In fact, a certain youthful exuberance radiates from the stage with the sheer joy of musical theater, and serves to remind us that there was a Golden Age of the Broadway musical to which today’s musicals owe homage.
This is all a roundabout way of saying that in addition to everything else, I think it is important for the young actors and audiences of this community to have exposure to the shows that made American musical theater great, setting the standard for such entertainments throughout the world, from New York to London, to Paris, to Mexico City, to Tokyo, to Seoul. Without Richard Rodgers, there is no Andrew Lloyd Webber. Without Mary Martin, there is no Lea Michele. Without Oklahoma, there is no Wicked.
Now to be specific. The cast at MusicalFare benefits from the lovely voice and marvelously appealing stage presence of very young and very charismatic Edith Grossman as Eliza. Less experienced than many in the cast, she nonetheless holds her own as the iconic Shavian heroine.
Miss Grossman is assisted by the abundance of talent that surrounds her.
Christian Brandjes makes an adorable and delightful Higgins. His arrogance and total self-absorption are actually endearing, and his complete blindness to his human failings lend him a palpable vulnerability. We feel, at times, that he needs more protection than Eliza.
I have never seen Doug Crane better than he is as Colonel Pickering. He lends the character dashing charm and clueless Edwardian bluster in an arguably perfect performance.
Philip Farugia is terrific as Eliza’s father, Alfred P. Doolittle—the hard-drinking and fun-loving dustman-philosopher, who extorts just as much from his daughter’s good fortune as his ethics deem appropriate.
With a cast of only 12, there is plenty of doubling in this production, which I actually think lends an unusual energy and excitement to the proceedings, as actors have to hustle offstage to make quick changes and be on the alert at every instant. An actor can be a nameless chorus member in one scene, and Mr. Freddy Eynsford-Hill the next—as John N. Kaczorowski does with great panache. His rendition of “On the Street Where You Live” is lush and affecting and comical in all the right ways. Sheila Connors, too, is appealing and engaging as Higgins’ wise but long-suffering housekeeper, Mrs. Pierce, as well as in a variety of smaller roles.
A crew of boys in the chorus—Kevin Craig, Jeffrey Coyle, and Kevin Kennedy—successfully make themselves look like the animated cockney performers from Walt Disney’s Mary Poppins as they play broad comedy with endless enthusiasm and energy.
Indeed, the energy of the production is unflagging. Never is there a momentary lull, which is unusual in my experience. My Fair Lady often begins to feel a bit long, midway through Act II. Not so here. The pace is brisk, aided by Chris Schenk’s set, which is an admirable model of economy. The two onstage pianists also add to the vigor and elegance of the piece—Jason Bravo (who also serves as music director and conductor) in formal attire, Griffin Kramer in working-class clothes. Kristy E. Schupp’s wonderful choreography is playful, inventive, and memorable—particularly in a rousing “Get Me to the Church on Time,” which makes happy use of the mug-clinking bit from Beauty and the Beast, with a touch of The Will Rogers Follies tossed in.
Finally, the advantages of having a truly excellent actor, even in minor roles, can be seen in the multi-character performance of the divine Ellen Horst, who plays Higgins’ mother and a variety of lesser roles. As Mrs. Higgins she is a powerful and patrician force who gracefully pulls every laugh from each line and look. But watch her as well in the musical choruses of “You Did It,” or “Get Me to the Church on Time.” No gesture or glance is exaggerated or wasted. This is a sublime performance, proving Stanislavsky’s contention that there are no small parts.
For those who doubted that MusicalFare could deliver a sophisticated show like My Fair Lady with a small cast and two pianos on a summer schedule, let me assure you, as sturdy as Gibraltar, not a second does it falter. There’s no doubt about it, they did it!
My Fair Lady continues through August 7.
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