My Fair Lady, book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner, music by Frederick Loewe, based on the play "Pygmalion" by George Bernard Shaw and the Gabriel Pascal movie. Directed by John Saunders. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
The Ensemble in"Ascot Gavotte"; photo: provided
"Why Can't the English. . . .Learn. . .To . . .Set a good example. . .?"
Eryn LeCroy, Mark Hardy, Steve Hassmer; photo: provided
In 1956, when I was ten years old, my favorite play was George Bernard Shaw's "Pygmalion." That year the musical version, "My Fair Lady" opened on Broadway and with the strength of my decade-old conviction I determined to hate the musical because I loved the play. I was ten. I did love the songs, however, once I could divorce them from the material for which they had been created. Now, so many years later, I still love the score for this show and I have learned to love the book even though it diminishes the impact of Shaw's Socialist message and because his human tale of manipulation and control has been watered down somewhat.
I did love the cast of the original version: Rex Harrison, Julie Andrews, Stanley Holloway and so many other wonderful players. It was just the simplification that bugged me. Last night, however, on the circular stage at the Mac-Haydn Theatre in Chatham, NY I fell in love with the minimized script as it was directed by John Saunders. An excellent cast in his hands brought back, without altering the text of the musical script, the intensity of the characters and their involvement in one another's lives as found in Shaw's play. For the first time I felt that Shaw was as much represented as was Lerner, his adaptor. I could see in the movement and facial expressions of Eryn LeCroy as Eliza Doolittle and Mark Hardy as Henry Higgins, and Meg Dooley as Mrs. Higgins, and Shannon Haddock as Mrs. Pearce and Gabe Belyeu as Alfred P. Doolittle all of those changes and alterations that circumstances and relationships bring to bear in this show. It wasn't that Saunders and his cast had removed anything or belittled nuance and subtlety, but rather that they found ways to expose the layers beneath the surface of brilliant clothing and made-up faces.
For example "I'm an Ordinary Man" revealed, as always, that Higgins is a highly complex individual but as Hardy performed it there was also the clarity of the simplicity of a man who suppresses his feelings. Eliza's "Just You Wait" allowed LeCroy the usual comic display of anger, disappointment and resentment but while she sang it there emerged a woman whose needs could almost never be met by just one man.
Not every song in this production brought out the other side of the picture. Some were just fun. "Ascot Gavotte" in a mock Cecil Beaton design celebrating the upper classes cavorting mildly while still in mourning for King Edward's death, for example, is just as much fun as ever as it reveals the blase reactions of the British upper classes. I have heard that this number went over particularly well in London and disturbed the royal family no end. "Get Me to the Church on Time" performed with true joy by Gabe Belyeu and the company in choreographer Brian Knowlton's exquisitely delicious circles and Busby Berkley-like floor formations (Oh, for the overhead shot here) is a non-stop pleasure for itself alone.
Mark Hardy, unlike many of his predecessors including Rex Harrison, sings the music Frederick Loewe wrote for each of Higgins' songs. Eryn LeCroy's lyrical voice gives a new, or perhaps renewed, beauty to Eliza's music. She is far and away the finest performer I've seen in this role in well over a decade and if there isn't a major career waiting for this woman I will be very surprised. Conor Robert Fallon returns to the Mac-Haydn this season as Freddie Eynsford-Hill, the romantic youngster who cannot resist Miss Doolittle's charms. He is delightful, although the songs are slightly rangy for him.
Gabe Belyeu with Daniel Klingenstein and Matthew Blum; photo: provided
Eryn LeCroy, Mark Hardy; photo: provid
While the entire cast in this production is marvelous the show, like the play on which it is based, relies on the chemistry of the male and female lead. I saw Alec McCowan and Diana Rigg in London in the non-musical and their chemistry was so magical I saw the play twice in the same day. At the Mac the chemistry between Hardy and LeCroy is palpable. They spark one another. Their double-level attraction/disdain makes the show literally flame. They are so good together that it is tempting to imagine them as Petruccio and Kate or even as Adam and Eve in "The Apple Tree". Everything he does affects her in more than one way and every word she utters grabs him in the nether region and shakes him just a bit. With the two of them on stage the plays nearly three hour length seemed much too short a time.
Saunders production is abetted to perfection by Jimm Halliday's costumes, Andrew Gmoser's lights, Kevin Gleason's set design and Josh D. Smith's excellent music direction. With this show I have no doubt who my favorite musical theater director is, who my favorite new up-and-coming star is and from what theater I expect to see more and more excellence provided.
This is first "big" musical of the season and it is a perfect hit of a show. I cannot think of a better reason for anyone to decide to go see it.
My Fair Lady opens the season at the Mac-Haydn and runs through June 5 at the theater located at 1925 Route 203, Chatham, NY. For information and tickets go to their website at www.machaydn.org or call the box office at 518-392-9292.