Regional Reviews: New Jersey
The NEW My Fair Lady
The ten-actor, two-piano, intimate adaptation of My Fair Lady on view at the McCarter's new 400 seat Berlind Theatre stands on its own as a delightful re-invention of the classic Alan Jay Lerner-Frederick Loewe masterpiece.
The miniaturist My Fair Lady does not either replace the grand scale Broadway musical nor is it diminished by it. It stands squarely on its own as a small-scale musical play with a strong emphasis on character detail and wit.
Viewing large scale productions of My Fair Lady which were dullish and musty, one could not help but wonder whether the musical had lost its remembered luster. However, viewing this delightful production, it becomes clear that it is not only the innovative concept that accounts for its success.
This My Fair Lady is fresh and surprising. It has been approached as if it had never been previously produced. Every line appears to have been examined and performed so as to enhance the interpretation of each role. There has been some judicious trimming of Lerner's libretto.
Simon Jones (Pickering), Michael Cumpsty (Higgins)
and Kate Fry (Eliza)
Director Gary Griffin deserves the lion's share of the credit for the entire enterprise. With brilliance and insight, Griffin delivers a string of surprises. At the end of "I'm an Ordinary Man," rather than the babble of recorded sounds of Eliza, we have Eliza herself being chased by Mrs. Pearce across the upper stage level to illustrate Henry's discomfort with having a woman in his life.
The first act ends with Eliza entering the embassy ball. When Higgins describes the evening's events ("You Did It") at the top of the second act, we see the events as he describes them. Karpathy gets to sing his own words (with Higgins now wittily singing the words "he said" amid them). There are many other such surprises, especially during the Ascot scene, to discover and enjoy. Even the final action after the last line of dialogue has a surprising and intelligent twist.
Kate Fry sings splendidly, and deftly interprets each lyric. She amazingly draws solid laughter that was not there before from a familiar lyric ("without your pulling it, the tide rolls in"). However, she is not merely a musical stage Eliza Doolittle. Fry could play Eliza in any production of Pygmalion and shine with her richly conceived, hilarious and very human Eliza. When she realizes that she has made a breakthrough in her pronunciation ("The Rain in Spain"), she delights with a shy smile, an insouciant shrug of her shoulder and a self satisfied placement of her feet on Higgins' desk.
Her precisely spoken English combines sharply and effortlessly with her unrefined conversation and manner of speech to make the Ascot scene extraordinarily hilarious. When Eliza makes her entrance at the embassy ball, Fry is more the nervous and overreaching young girl than the glamorous and poised creature that other productions have accustomed us to seeing.
She also is touching in tremulously conveying a consuming love for Higgins. Although the iconoclastic Shaw stated that "I cannot conceive of a less happy ending to the story of Pygmalion than a love affair between the middle-aged, middle-class professor, a confirmed old bachelor with a mother fixation, and a flower girl of 18," there clearly can be no other happy ending for Fry's Eliza.
Michael Cumpsty also emphasizes the meaning of the lyrics and enunciates them beautifully. (Am I the only one who had incorrectly come to think that Higgins sang, "I will slam the door and let the hellcat free"? Cumptsy has disabused me of that silly notion.) Cumpsty has not yet found the soft, vulnerable side of Higgins. When he does, his otherwise solid Higgins will be a stronger match for Fry's Eliza.
Michael McCarty is a respectable Alfred P. Doolittle. However, a little more size and outrageousness is needed to wring all the humor from Eliza's disreputable father. Although McCarty performs them well enough, Doolittle's often show-stopping numbers lose some of their exuberance without chorus and full orchestra.
Freddy is played with an uncommon sweetness by Jim Stanek. His lyrical, smooth, securely-sung "On the Street Where You Live" is truly beautiful to hear.
Simon Jones is a solid, likeable and appropriately low-key Pickering. Patricia Kilgarriff (Mrs. Pierce), Brenda Martindale (Mrs. Eynsford-Hill), Jeff Edgerton and Stephen Mo Hanan (Zoltan Karpathy) in a wide range of male roles, lend strong support.
Love and kisses to the wonderful Jane Connell. Nearly half a century after making her Broadway debut, she continues to amaze. Her elegant performance captures all the hilarity of Mrs. Higgins' sharp wit as well as the warmth of her growing affection for Eliza. It is that one of a kind performance in a supporting role than provides ballast for the entire evening.
An additional four or five actors for the Covent Garden, Tottenham Court Road and Ascot scenes would likely enhance this production without hampering its intimate style.
The simple basic set includes a railed platform toward the rear with a circular metal staircase at stage left providing access to and from the stage floor. The front of the platform effectively provides a second playing level. Although basically simple (it does contain one or two surprises), John Culbert's set is solid and evocative of the original.
The costumes by Nan Cibula-Jenkins are attractive and appropriate. During the Ascot scene, Eliza in black and white beautifully stands out from the others whose costumes are black, white and grey (that is, except for Higgins who is improperly wearing a tan suit). Good work here.
The two fine pianists, musical director Thomas Murray and Charles Sundquist, face each other across the platform behind the playing space. Although it has been written that Alan Jay Lerner arranged the formerly "rarely heard" two piano version presented here, there is a program credit for Trude Rittman as arranger. The arrangements fit in well with the production. Do not look for an overture, dance music or choreography. There is lovely exit music.
There is no getting around it. If you have any interest in the American musical theatre, you likely will be seeing the intimate My Fair Lady. Since Gary Griffin first directed it two years ago in Chicago, similar productions have played in a number of major regional theatres. As My Fair Lady is a box office booster, and works well in this intimate staging, it will be produced more and more often in the foreseeable future.
This is a fresh, innovative and delightful My Fair Lady that you will not want to miss. If you are interested, get your seats now, they are not likely to be available later.
My Fair Lady continues performances through June 27, 2004 at the Berlind Theatre at the McCarter Theatre, 91 University Place, Princeton, NJ 08540; box office: 609-258-2787; online www.mccarter.org
My Fair Lady book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner; music by Frederick Loewe; Cast (in order of appearance):Thomas Murray, Carl Sundquist (pianists); Jeff Edgerton (Harry; Charles; Prince of Transylvania); Michael McCarty (Alfred P. Doolittle); Stephen Mo Hanan (Jamie; Butler;Lord Boxington; Zoltan Karpathy); Jim Stanek (Freddy Eynsford-Hill); Brenda Martindale (Mrs. Eynsford-Hill; Mrs. Hopkins); Kate Fry (Eliza Doolittle); Simon Jones (Colonel Hugh Pickering); Michael Cumpsty (Henry Higgins); Patricia Kilgarriff (Mrs. Pearce); Jane Connell (Mrs. Higgins)