Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, October 2005
My Fair Lady, based on George Bernard Shaw’s 1914 play Pygmalion and Gabriel Pascal’s 1938 film of the same, is often called the perfect musical. While remaining extremely faithful to its roots, the music and dance seem to spring effortless from the script. In this world, it is completely plausible that people sing rather than speak their thoughts and feelings.
Shaw based his play on the ancient Greek myth of Pygmalion and Galatea, in which a man, a sculptor, comes to abhor women so much that he pledges an eternal bachelorhood. He creates for himself Galatea, a beautiful ivory statute of a woman, who he comes to love and idealize. Aphrodite, goddess of love, allows Galatea to come to life as Pygmalion’s perfect mate. From their union Paphos was born, from whom the city, sacred to Aphrodite, received its name.
In Shaw’s version Pygmalion became the famous phoneticist Henry Higgins, and Eliza Doolittle, his Galatea, is anything but perfect, and certainly not a woman of his own creation. From the very start Eliza is firmly her own person, and Higgins’ success in transforming her speech does nothing to change who she ultimately is. What remains steadfast from the Greek tale is Higgins hatred of women and his determination to stay single, which, in Shaw’s version he does.
It is important to look again at this genesis of My Fair Lady because it explains very clearly why the show does not fit comfortably into the American musical comedy genre. We expect at least one happy couple at the final curtain. Here we don’t even get a cheerful comedy couple in a subplot. Eliza’s father gets married, but we never meet his bride and the wedding is only occasioned by convention, not by love. My Fair Lady is staunchly asexual and unromantic, as Shaw intended.
While all eyes are on Eliza’s transformation, Henry Higgins is the central character in My Fair Lady, and it would be hard to find a more pompous, self-centered and arrogant anti-hero. Higgins’ verbal and threatened physical abuse of Liza are hard to stomach in this day and age, although they were written at a time when violence towards women, particularly lower class women, was not on acceptable but legal.
The trick is to find a skilled actor (singing is of secondary importance here) who can make the audience understand, if not ultimately like, the character. What director Kim Charver has in the current production at the Cohoes Music Hall, is a singer, but not a singer skilled in the speech level singing required. This is an odd and unfortunate bit of casting, but understandable since Jerry Christakos has ties to the casting director, Kelly Briggs. Christakos is a respected cabaret artist and a musical comedy star, having originated the role of Gabriel in the New York and London productions of The Kiss of the Spiderwoman, and I am sure he is very good in his genre. He is completely out of his league as Henry Higgins. This is one of those sad occasions when the Equity star is shown up by the young, non-Equity members of the cast.
My Fair Lady is tricky for an American cast to perform because it is all about the class distinctions of British speech. At Cohoes we are treated to the usual wide variety of bad and uneven British accents. Erin Kruse as Eliza does the best job, although once her upper-class British speech is established she has a hard time maintaining it and making it sound natural. Steve Aron as Alfred P. Doolittle does the next best job, having only to maintain a broad Cockney accent throughout. Victor Cahn as Colonel Pickering, an old hat at faking a genial British tone, is also pleasant to listen to. But Christakos as Higgins, a man whose speech should be impeccable, barely sounds British at all.
With a weak center, it is a blessing that this production is so sound all around the edges. At least you enjoy the donut even if you find the hole less than filling! Kruse is a lovely and touching Eliza. There are two key moments – after the Embassy Ball and at the final curtain – when Charver lets her down as a director, giving her not enough energy and business, but otherwise she gives the part her all. Kruse has (or at least has in this production) an amazing head of thick dark, curly hair which seems to work wonders towards safely anchoring an array of frighteningly large Edwardian cartwheel hats.
Aron, the other Equity actor on the stage, acquits himself very nicely. Alfred P. Doolittle is a plum role, and Aron does a nice job of bringing his own unique personality and dance stylings to a role that can devolve into mere music hall shtick. Cahn is delightful as the terminally British Pickering. His little turn talking on the phone to his old pal Boozey at the Home Office (why do upper class British gents give each other such ludicrous nick-names??) was a hoot.
Since Christakos’ sing-talk is very difficult to hear over the dual pianos played by Musical Director Thom Culcasi and Graham Doig, it is a pleasure when the full-voiced Byron Dement takes the stage as Freddy Eynsford Hill and belts out On the Street Where You Live. I enjoyed Dement in several roles at the Mac-Haydn over the summer and am pleased to see him reappear in Cohoes. I am hoping he returns to reprise his vocally stunning Chantal in La Cage Aux Folles at the end of the Cohoes season.
Reliable local pros Karla Shook, Carol Charniga, and Joan Faxon play the small roles of Higgins’ housekeeper Mrs. Pierce, his mother, and Mrs. Eynsford Hill. They, along with Dement, Erin Spears, Jason Paul, Eric Rose, and Brian F. Waite, also lend their strong voices in a variety of chorus parts.
Scenic Designer Scott Aranow has devised a clever unit set that manages to morph speedily (thanks to the first rate moving-in-the-dark skills of the cast and crew) from the streets outside Covent Garden, to Higgins’ flat, to the race track at Ascot. At first I was amused by the little bit of ceiling molding that descended from the flies every time the action moved indoors, but then I got used to it and found it a useful device.
Charver, who I assume did the choreography as well as the stage direction, uses the Aranow’s set and the nooks and crannies of the Music Hall well to bring lively stage pictures to life. The two big dance numbers – With a Little Bit of Luck and Get Me to the Church on Time – are lively and entertaining.
DB Productions are credited with the costumes, and Khryn Diotte and Marizza Ataide are listed as costume assistants. Eliza’s costumes are progressively more elaborate and attractive, while the other females are dressed in well-fitting garb appropriate to the age and station of the characters they are portraying. The gentlemen are mostly either tweedy or formal, although Alfred P. Doolittle does get to wear the most amazing (and I assume authentic) Edwardian dustman’s ensemble in the first act.
With the exception of Christakos and the inevitable uneven British accents, everything about this production is first rate. I was saddened that there wasn’t a bigger opening night audience, and I hope that word of mouth will bring better crowds to the Music Hall. My Fair Lady is an excellent musical to which to bring young people, since it is not only a gem of its genre, but a good way to open up a discussion of how speech and dress still delineate rank and status, even in our supposedly “classless” American society.
My Fair Lady, presented by C-R Productions, runs weekends through October 13 at the Cohoes Music Hall, 58 Remsen Street in Cohoes. The show runs two hours and forty-five minutes with one intermission. Children 8 and up will enjoy this production. Call the box office at 518-237-7999 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2005