KPBS AIRDATE: FEBRUARY 17, 1999
As a musical, it broke all the rules; adapting a British masterpiece was so risky it was turned down by all the great composers of its day. On top of that, it cast a leading man who couldn’t sing and it didn’t even bother to include a romance. In 1956, that was musical theater heresy. But “My Fair Lady” still became one of the best and most beloved shows of all time.
And the reasons are simple and clear: both the story, based on George Bernard Shaw’s brilliant “Pygmalion,” and the songs, written by Lerner and Lowe with wit, skill and finesse, are spectacular. Almost every number is a hummable, lovable winner, from “I Could Have Danced All Night,” to “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face,” “The Rain in Spain,” “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly,” “On the Street Where You Live,” “With a Little Bit of Luck,” “Get Me to the Church on Time” and on and on. (Eat your heart out, Andrew Lloyd Webber; you should only BE so lucky as to have this many great songs in one show!).
Relative newcomers Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Lowe were a late choice, after Cole Porter, Noel Coward and Rodgers and Hammerstein turned down the musical offer. Even Julie Andrews, then 21, only scored the role after it was rejected by Mary Martin. Nevertheless, “My Fair Lady” ran for nine years on Broadway, and walked away with every award imaginable, for both the stage and the film versions.
But despite its linguistic and musical ingenuity, the show’s gotten a bit tarnished over time, mostly by the inherent misogyny of its leading man, the pedantic English phonetician Henry Higgins, who bets his buddy he can, in record time, turn a dirty-faced, scruffy cockney flower-seller into a pure-talking, apparent princess. The ending, after the bet is won and the teacher and pupil reunite, could be played as the ultimate in female subjugation. It all depends on how Eliza responds when the old boy says “Bring me my slippers.”
Fortunately, at the Lamb’s Players Theatre, Eliza stands tall, and it seems like she’ll engineer a pretty comfortable and equitable relationship. Well, that’s a relief. And there’s the extra attraction that the Lamb’s leads already enjoy a long-term, collaborative marriage… It’s always a pleasure to see Robert and Deborah Gilmour Smyth onstage together.
This time, though, things do fall a little short of expectations. This is Lamb’s largest undertaking in its 28-year history; the gorgeous costumes are extremely elaborate, and there are 22 people onstage. Oddly enough, despite all the talent involved, it’s not Lamb’s most professional production. The choreography is sorely lacking, the band sounds tinny and distant, and even the choral singing is less robust than usual, though the solos and the male quartet are top-notch.
But Deborah Gilmour-Smyth is a delightful and irresistible Eliza Doolittle. She has a powerful and truly loverly voice, though her accent comes and goes. Also in the accent department, Robert Smyth, isn’t “high British” enough for Higgins; (he sounds middle class, not Oxbridge), and he tries to sing more than he should, not quite pulling off the Rex Harrison bit of talking through the songs (except in “A Hymn to Him,” a sarcastic paean that he does to perfection).
The rest of the cast of Lamb’s regulars is strong. Jim Chovick is a smashing Colonel Pickering, the bemused but gentle man who takes up and oversees the Higgins bet. Katherine Faulconer is deliciously regal as Higgins’ mother, and Mike Buckley does a charming turn as Freddy, who gets to sing “On the Street Where You Live” (twice, identically). Tom Stephenson is pretty funny as Eliza’s finagling father, and Myra McWethy makes a lot of the little role of Higgins’ housekeeper. Director Kerry Meads favors frenetic action, even though a good deal of this play is about the insufferable British reserve. But even though the production is not unblemished, the show “oozes charm from every pore.”
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1999 Patté Productions Inc.