Some musicals require gigantic sets, lush orchestrations, or rows of dancing feet to reach a certain level of entertainment. While those features are wonderful attributes, a smart story, splendid tunes, and winning performances will do rather nicely on their own. This fact is demonstrated in the scaled down production of My Fair Lady currently being presented at the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park.
My Fair Lady is a musical adaptation of George Bernard Shaw's play, Pygmalion. The story takes place in England in 1912 and focuses on Professor Henry Higgins, who bets his newfound friend Colonel Pickering that he can pass off a lowly flower girl as a refined socialite merely by changing her speech and appearance. Eliza Doolittle is the young waif Higgins chooses after accusing her of murdering the English language, and she proves to be quite the project for the two phonetics experts.
My Fair Lady is one of the rare instances where a musical comes close to or succeeds in surpassing the quality of its original source material. Much of this success, however, comes from sticking closely to Shaw's thoughtful, intelligent, and poignant story. The book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner supply clever wit, unexpected humor, and layered emotional subtext. The music by Frederick Loewe is expressively tuneful, with quick paced numbers celebrating self-discovery, as well as tender ballads with soaring melodies and quirky charm songs. The score from this 1956 Tony Winner includes numerous now-classics such as "Wouldn't It Be Loverly," "The Rain in Spain," "I Could Have Danced All Night," "On The Street Where You Live," "Show Me," "Get Me To the Church On Time," and "I've Grown Accustomed To Your Face." My Fair Lady is one of the near perfect examples of an old-fashioned musical classic.
This production is unique in several ways. The show was cast with only ten actors, thus requiring ensemble members to take on even more multiple roles than normal. This reduction is a detriment only in the act one finale at the ball, which appears noticeably sparse in attendance.
Little can be found at fault in the actual performances, however. As Eliza, Crista Moore (who garnered Tony nominations for Gypsy and Big) convincingly transforms from the rough and raw Cockney flower girl to the polished lady of high society. She is thoroughly appealing, sings like an angel, and sustains the fiery independence of Eliza throughout the performance. Broadway veteran Neal Benari is appropriately pompous and disrespectful as Professor Higgins, and his singing is far better than the average performer in the role. Russell Leib is a dignified hoot as Colonel Pickering, and Linda Stephens scores well as both Higgins' mother and the housekeeper, Mrs. Pearce. As Eliza's father, Peter Van Wagner is suitably humorous, and Alan Souza sings impressively in the role of Freddy. Keith Howard, Jeffrey Kuhn, Howard Kaye, and Rebecca Spencer round out the talented cast.
Director Susan Booth oversees a fast paced and fluid production, and stages each scene well. However, the motivation behind several character decisions and actions is insufficiently communicated, and a stronger development of the relationship between Eliza and Higgins would have helped. Daniel Pelzig's bright yet subtle choreography is an asset to the production.
In addition to the smaller than usual cast, other streamlined choices also exist that also make this production distinctive. Playhouse's My Fair Lady incorporates Loewe's rarely used two-piano accompaniment, provided brilliantly by Henry Palkes and Music Director Steven Gross. The set design by Michael Philipi uses a two-story wrought iron unit set with a beautifully illustrated backdrop to capture the setting effectively. Props and small set pieces are moved about to differentiate separate locations. Without the additional stimuli of a large orchestra or an enormous scenic design, this stripped down version has the benefit of instead showcasing My Fair Lady's wonderful score and smartly told tale. The costumes by Linda Roethke and lighting by Dawn Chiang are top-notch, and special mention must also go to Dialect Coach Rocco Dal Vera.
Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park kicks off its 2003-2004 season with this old gem of a musical in a solidly performed and uniquely staged production. This version of My Fair Lady plays in Cincinnati through October 3, 2003, before moving on to performances at The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis and the Alliance Theater Company of Atlanta. Tickets are available here at (513) 421-3888.