Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, June, 1999
It is very important to note that “My Fair Lady” is a “musical play”. It is not a musical comedy – that uniquely American art form. Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe took the play “Pygmalion” by George Bernard Shaw, added some songs and took out some dialogue. Because the songs so perfectly suit the characters and so ably move the plot along in lieu of the missing dialogue, “My Fair Lady” is often called “the perfect musical”. And yet it does not fit the definition of musical comedy at all.
If you like Shaw, if you like your Shaw with music (a combination that would surely have GBS spinning in his grave) then this is a fine show for you. What remains of Shaw’s play is very faithful to its prgenitor, and at a running time of three hours it is enough to make an Shavian fan happy. Except, of course, it is being performed in a musical house by a cast of folks who are ready to start tap dancing furiously at the drop of a hat.
If you are going because you have fond memories of seeing Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews on stage; or Harrison and Audrey Hepburn (singing voice by Marnie Nixon) on the screen, you should be warned that the principals – Paul Gregory Nelson as Higgins and Daphne Smith as Eliza – will not remind you of that gentleman or either of those ladies in the least.
Nelson just appeared at the Mac-Haydn as Emile DeBecque in “South Pacific”, and I felt he was way too pretty for that role. Imagine how much more his Fabio-type looks jar when he is portraying that musty old bachelor professor Higgins. Also, Nelson can really sing, and Higgins’ songs were written for Harrison’s non-singing voice. This role is a waste of Nelson’s looks and voice, but he is also ill-suited temperamently. Higgins is the ultimate repressed Englishman. Nelson is full of fire.
Smith has a lovely voice and is fully capable of singing Eliza. She appeared last season at the Mac-Haydn as Anna in “The King and I” and has graced their stage twice before that. She is also a competent actress, but Eliza just eludes her.
One of the big problems with any American production of “My Fair Lady” is that you have us Yanks tackling not one, but two foreign accents, as well as trying to portray a class system that is really quite alien to us now.
This seems to be the year for accents in local theatre: “The Factory Girls” (WTF) required Irish accents; and “Run for Your Wife” (Theater Barn), “The Crucifer of Blood” (BTF) and “My Fair Lady” required British dialects. A few American performers can do good accents, the vast majority are really bad. Of the shows listed above only the cast of “The Crucifer of Blood” manages a uniformity of speech. “My Fair Lady” is all about accents and how people speak. Under the circumstances noted above, it is a dangerous show for an American cast to tackle. A notable failure in this cast is Timothy Kennedy as Colonel Pickering. He never sounds British at all.
Jim Kidd is a hoot as Eliza’s father, dustman Alfred P. Doolittle, but his voice isn’t up to the rigors of singing while dancing vigorously. Chris Taylor is a winning Freddy Eynsford-Hill, even though he lacks the classically trained tenor we are used to hearing in “On the Street Where You Live”. If I were Eliza I would have taken him over that crabby old Higgins anyday. Shannon Polly, resting up after her heavy duty as Nellie Forbush in “South Pacific”, plays Higgins housekeeper Mrs. Pearce with a twinkle in her eye.
This is the Mac-Haydn and show is performed in the round, so sets are non-existent. The lighting is adequate. But what really deserved, and frequently got, a hand, were the costumes by Nelson Fields. Fields’ work has consistently raised the bar on Mac-Haydn costume standards this season.
“My Fair Lady” runs through July 4 at the Mac-Haydn Theatre in Chatham, NY. The show runs three hours with one intermission. For tickets and information call the box office at 518-392-9292)
copyright Gail M. Burns, 1999