Saturday, October 10, 2009

A Fair "My Fair Lady"

There are problems with tackling iconic roles in theater. Yul Brynner, for example, will always "own" the role of King Mongkut in "The King and I," as he did through the film version and two or three revivals. Ultimately he played the role over 4500 times.

Another iconic role is that of Professor Henry Higgins in "My Fair Lady." Rex Harrison, like Brynner, performed the role both on Broadway, on film, and in at least one revival.

(Interesting side note: I never saw Yul Brynner on stage in "The King and I," but heard that even through his revivals he did a marvelous job. The 1981 revival of "My Fair Lady" I did see, and was immediately struck by the fact that here was a man (Harrison) who, in my humble opinion, desperately needed to retire.)

I mention this because those who try to fill such roles often find themselves compared — unfairly, of course — to those icons who gave the role their imprimature. So when we had a chance to see the Downey Civic Light Opera version of "My Fair Lady" yesterday, I wondered how the actors would handle this extra burden.

In a word, they did well. Those who are familiar with the movie version well remember Audrey Hepburn's performance as Eliza Doolittle, along with Harrison as Higgins, Stanley Holloway as the dustman cum "moralist" Alfred P. Doolittle, and Wilfred Hyde-White as Col. Hugh Pickering. I was delighted to see that Downey's main protagonists, while using certain mannerisms created by the film stars, were more than able to find their own characterizations in this delightful, if extremely long show.

Joseph Culliton is nothing like Rex Harrison, thankfully. Whenever Harrison would become at all excitable (which happens more often than not in this Lerner and Leowe production), his voice would take on an edge that reminded me forcefully of fingernails on a chalkboard. Culliton's voice is a much smoother baritone, and, whereas Harrison was no singer and generally spoke through his music, Culliton did the music justice. In fact, this may be the first time I've ever heard anyone actually sing "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face." For the rest of his characterization, Culliton relied on the wit contained in the libretto. His delivery was appropriately deadpan as a depiction of the ultimate chauvinist.

His friend Pickering is played with great charm by Richard Gould, who has the good fortune to actually resemble Hyde-White somewhat. His portrayal of the benefactor in this attempt to create a lady of elegance from a girl who had only raw material to start with is compelling. He makes the perfect low-key foil to the mulish Higgins.

Charlotte Carpenter does a delightful job with Eliza. Her opening Cockney is, ironically enough, well articulated in the opening scenes, and she transitions into the proper English accents with sufficient aplomb. She also has the pipes to pull off the job. It is well known that Audrey Hepburn was no singer and had her songs dubbed. Carpenter needs no such assistance. She worked well through the standards of "I Could Have Danced All Night," "Wouldn't It Be Loverly?" and "The Rain in Spain." In fact, the only criticism I had of the entire show was what seemed to be uneven miking of the principals. I'm not sure if this was because I was in the front row of the orchestra section, but even with mikes it was sometimes hard to hear the leads over the energetic pit orchestra (ably led by Eddy Clement).

George Champion has perhaps the toughest challenge of the neo-icons in this production. Stanley Holloway's performance as Alfred Doolittle is a classic, and his interpretation of a common dustman with uncommon morals has set a rather high standard for all who follow. Champion, however, gives Holloway a run for his money, even winkingly grabbing several of Holloway's signature moves and expressions along the way. He does the role credit, though, and marks himself as a true showman in the process.

One nice surprise was the performance of Jason Marquez as Freddy Eynsford-Hill. It is altogether too easy to make this one of the sappiest roles in all of theater, because the part is basically written as a lovesick tenor, and there is nothing worse in this world than a lovesick tenor. Marquez is something of a warbler, but he commanded the role of the star-struck would-be lover. His singing was never over-the-top, and he still managed to give Freddy that breathless quality of a man out of his mind over a beautiful woman.

Taken altogether it was a wonderful performance. They started a few minutes late, but the show clocks in at just over 3 hours, so you need to be committed to the show in order to truly enjoy it. There's plenty of good choreography and ensemble work, particularly among those who portrayed the long-suffering staff of Prof. Higgins' household. Their work through "Poor Professor Higgins" was simply fun to watch. Equally fun was the male quartet that accompanies Eliza in "Loverly." Throughout the show the cast and chorus showed tremendous energy and focus, and provided us with many memorable moments.

If you're anywhere in the area this weekend or next, give this one your consideration. I believe you won't be disappointed.

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