Review: Light Opera Work’s "My Fair Lady"

My Fair Lady 

Light Opera Works presents

My Fair Lady
based on George Bernard Shaw‘s Pygmalion
book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner and music by Frederick Loewe
through Sunday, August 30th (buy tickets)

One of the crown jewels of Broadway’s Golden Age of Musicals, My Fair Lady, from its original Tony Award-winning production, to its best-selling cast album, to its Best Picture-winning film, may well be the best-known and most often produced entry in the musical theatre canon. And it has all of the hallmarks of its genre: the gorgeous melodies, the comic show stoppers, the happy ending… Since 1956, everything about My Fair Lady has been inescapable, as warm and familiar as Higgins’ slippers.

3439Fc Which is precisely what Light Opera Works is serving up at Northwestern’s Cahn Auditorium (map) in Evanston. From the musical phrasing to the Cecil Beaton Ascot costumes, everything is as we remember it. There are no surprises – good or bad – and whether you consider that a blessing or a curse will determine how you respond to this My Fair Lady.

The performers have without exception strong voices and portray convincing enough characters, within the somewhat tradition-bound scope of their roles. Natalie Ford‘s Eliza is, by turns, plucky, elegant, and determined, and her “I Could Have Danced All Night” was, as it usually is, a  tour de force. Cary Lovett, as Liza’s father Alfred, and Jeff MacMullen, as erstwhile suitor Freddy, deliver their equally-well-known music hall-style and pining young lover turns with all requisite charm – and, in Mr. MacMullen’s case, with a soaring tenor voice that breathes real life into “On the Street Where You Live.” In a smaller, non-singing role, Jo Ann Minds brings a brittle wit to her portrayal of Higgins’ mother that would make Dame Judi Dench quite proud.

3439Fa Nick Sandys, as Professor Henry Higgins, is bit less successful – if by “success” we mean simply delivering a fascimile of what we’ve seen before. Sandys is younger – significantly younger, it would appear – than Rex Harrison in this part. His aristocratic good looks make Eliza’s attraction to him much easier to see, and throw his relationship with his mother into much sharper focus. Sandys is quicker, and brighter, as Higgins, his mind always at work; it is easy to understand this Professor not seeing the love blooming before his very eyes.

In the end, as the chorus of “I Could Have Danced All Night” swells through the full orchestra’s strings, and Liza goes to fetch Higgins’ slippers, we get from this My Fair Lady exactly what Light Opera Works promised. If you’re in the mood for a faithful recreation of a familiar musical classic, My Fair Lady will be performed through August 30th.

Rating: «««

 

Read more about the show after the fold.

From notes found on Light Opera Works’ website:

 

More about the show

My Fair Lady

“The Shaw must go on”,   by Michael Kotze

The sword was there for all to see, but it was firmly stuck; try as they might, no one could pull it out of the stone. Broadway’s doughtiest knights were called to the challenge—Cole Porter, Frank Loesser, Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz, Comden and Green, Leonard Bernstein, even the mighty Rodgers and Hammerstein—but after grappling with the problem, they all said it couldn’t be done. But all was not lost. Alan Jay Lerner, who had no more success than the others in his first attempt, nerved himself to a second effort. Miraculously, the sword finally came loose from its stony berth, and Lerner was crowned the King of Broadway.

The impossible dream

You’ll pardon the premature evocation of Camelot—still some years off in the Lerner canon—but in the world of Broadway, this was a truly mythic event. Our metaphoric Excalibur here stands in for another seemingly impossible goal: turning George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion into a musical. But Lerner did it, and in doing so, helped create what may well be Broadway’s greatest musical, My Fair Lady.

Alan Jay Lerner was born in New York City in 1918 with the proverbial silver spoon in his mouth. His family’s success with its chain of women’s clothing shops, the Lerner Stores, afforded young Alan a privileged upbringing. He was sent to an exclusive English boarding school; in his memoir, The Street Where I Live, Lerner recalled his father “was passionate about the English language which was the reason my brothers and I were shipped off to England; i.e., to learn the language.”

We catch a bit of Shaw’s Professor Higgins in that memoir’s glimpses of the elder Lerner’s linguistic meticulousness; for example, Lerner quotes his father: “Alan, I have counted the words you have used this weekend and you have an active vocabulary of 297 words. I don’t see how you can make a career as a writer with an active vocabulary of 297 words. However, I believe you have talent and if you would like to return to school and study, I would be more than happy to subsidise you.” It is worth noting this remark was made well after Alan had been to Harvard University, and even after he had his first Broadway hit with Brigadoon.

Brigadoon was Lerner’s third collaboration with the Viennese-born composer Frederick Loewe; its success (it ran more than a year, and took the Best Musical award from the New York Drama Critics Circle) cemented their fledgling partnership, which would continue in 1951 with Paint Your Wagon.

In the meantime, Lerner was establishing himself in Hollywood, writing screenplays for two MGM movie musicals, Royal Wedding and An American in Paris (the latter winning him an Academy Award).

The greats give up

It was around this time that Pygmalion entered his life, in the unlikely person of Gabriel Pascal, a Romanian film producer who had charmed the irascible Shaw into granting him the movie rights to several of his plays; perhaps the most notable of his films was the 1938 Pygmalion, starring Leslie Howard and Wendy Hiller. Pascal longed to turn his most successful property into a musical, and made the rounds soliciting likely talent, telling numerous writers and composers that they and they alone were the ones to make his dream a reality.

By the time Pascal got around to assuring Lerner and Loewe that fate had selected them for the job, they were well aware that the producer had already propositioned a good many of Broadway’s brightest names, all of whom ultimately threw in the towel. Rodgers and Hammerstein contemplated the problem for more than a year before they came to the conclusion that everyone reached eventually: Shaw’s play was too talky, too didactic, and above all, too unromantic to be transformed into a musical comedy.

All the same, Lerner and Loewe agreed to consider the idea. But before long, they were among the many who wrestled with Pygmalion and gave it up. But they were unique in that a couple of years later, they took it up again, convinced that their earlier objections were no longer valid: musicals were changing, and the old formulas were giving way to new ideas. Perhaps the very things that made everyone else abandon the project could be turned into advantages. And so, in 1954, they began to work in earnest on a show they knew would be unique. But whether it would be a unique hit or a unique flop, who could say?

It was not a flop. Pygmalion, the Musical—finally titled My Fair Lady —opened on Broadway in March, 1956, and went on to conquer New York, London, Hollywood, and the world. Its triumph was both Lerner’s and Loewe’s; My Fair Lady without Loewe’s effervescent score is unthinkable. But perhaps the most defining contribution to its success was Lerner’s audacious solution to the Pygmalion problem.

Honoring Shaw

The audacity lies in the way Lerner treats Shaw’s play. While everyone else had failed trying to adapt Pygmalion into a musical comedy, Lerner accepts the play as is, making little effort to alter it to suit musical comedy convention. He uses great swaths of Shaw’s own dialogue. Of course, this ensures that My Fair Lady has the most brilliant dialogue ever to grace the musical stage, but it is a risky endeavor, similar to an architect planning an addition to the Taj Mahal. Lerner’s original material—the lyrics and additional dialogue—had to be up to Shaw’s level, or My Fair Lady simply wouldn’t work.

One can only imagine the vast reserves of self-confidence Lerner had to draw upon in approaching the task. This certainly was territory where angels might fear to tread, but Lerner never puts a foot wrong. The book and lyrics of My Fair Lady are a miracle of literary finesse. The songs flow seamlessly out of the action, and the lyrics provide utterly convincing amplifications of the attitudes and subtexts inherent in Shaw’s play. Even Lerner’s most famous departure from the original, his suggestion of reconciliation and a possible romance between Higgins and Eliza, seems right. Though Shaw probably would have disapproved, Lerner’s persuasive denouement may well be an improvement upon the original.

The task seemed impossible, but not to Alan Jay Lerner. In his uncommonly perceptive study of Broadway in the 1950s, Coming Up Roses, Ethan Mordden sums the case up neatly: “Lerner didn’t make Pygmalion into a musical. He made a musical into Pygmalion.”

One Response

  1. […] My Fair Lady – Light Opera Works (our review) […]

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