My Fair Lady
By Alan J. Lerner and Frederick Loewe, at Capital Repertory Theater, Albany
“Ah-ah-ah-ow-ow-ow-oo!” mocks phoneticist Henry Higgins. He is making it clear why uttering the English language can nail you to your social class faster than head lice or a Rolls Royce.
If you listen to many American women of the television classes (pitching voices high and whining through their noses in what novelist/pundit Mark Helprin calls “North American chipmunk”), you may sympathize with Higgins. Where are the language snobs when you really need one?
Most people are familiar with the path of Lerner & Loewe’s “fair lady” from filthy wretch to filthy rich by way of lovely spoken English. Seldom have class distinctions been so thoroughly defended and so thoroughly skewered as in George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, the play from which the musical is filched. (Shaw did and undid both classes so well that you may even detect a touch of snob in the old socialist.)
The scenes in My Fair Lady that are directly lifted from Pygmalion are at the core of the musical’s appeal. It is My Fair George and My Fair Alan J, the word-people, who shine. The score is ordinary. (Oops! Sorry. Big minority opinion there.)
Capital Rep’s Allison Spratt belongs with some of the best of all the Eliza Doolittles. Her look is perfect. She has exuberant freedom and a physical ease that can only come from discipline and right connection to the script. Savvy direction from Maggie Mancinelli-Cahill probably doesn’t hurt, either. Vocally, Spratt knocks a riveting high C out on to Pearl Street; however, the scrapiness in “Just You Wait” does not serve Eliza’s rage, “Show Me” could be more “sung,” and Spratt’s vibrato is spotty.
Fred Rose as Henry Higgins makes more of Henry’s bratty boorishness than the show’s creators may have intended. That, coupled with his high-pitched speaking voice, robs the character of some of his believability as an advocate of beautiful speaking and educated, upper-class worldly wisdom. He is attractive enough physically, but there needs to be enough character-attractiveness to make us accept the wobbly Shaw/Lerner ending. Much could be said about that ending, for which there is no room here, but why does Eliza return to him? There is little in her behavior that suggests masochism.
Rose is especially effective in a rousing “Why Can’t a Woman Be More Like a Man,” enhanced by brilliant in-the-door-out-the-door staging. (It would be fun to see Fred Rose in Wilde, Feydeau, or Frayn.)
Except for setting an occasional “face,” and gluing it determinedly front, Larry Daggett is a spectacular Colonel Pickering, squeezing lots of charm, liveliness, and humor out of a role that often emerges as merely an upper-class British stereotype. In addition, he plays a mean on-stage piano, joins the ensemble for quartet duty, and moves around as if he is on good terms with dance studios. Whew! Underpaid, no doubt.
Georga Osborne is an especially appealing Mrs. Higgins, the warm, reasonable, moneyed mother of Higgins. She suggests an upper class devoutly to be desired, though probably non-existent. David Beditz is a delightful Alfred Doolittle, and Emily Mikesell as Mrs. Pearce can make you long for a calm, intelligent, long-suffering housekeeper. Except for ensemble member Ian Lowe, dancing suffers in this production.
Thank goodness for Michael Hicks’ Freddie! As my theater companion said, “‘On the Street Where You Live’ usually lands with a thud!” This Freddie flies about the street with big-voiced gusto and silly, beaming devotion. He’s a treat.
However, Hicks’ musical direction leaves a ragged cockney quartet and some occasionally questionable piano-playing by cast members. His overture and entr’acte experiment involves singers standing in for orchestra parts. With the two pianos, they “bum-bum” their way through a kind of vocal orchestration. It seems like a good idea; but it doesn’t quite work, especially when they “bum-bum” some inner harmonies to the foreground. The two pianos alone are mostly satisfactory in the rest of the show.
Which brings us to the piano-positioning—up-center in a space-eating, raised half circle—and to the decision to have actors double as musicians. Placing pianos center stage allows the performers to glide out of their characters, on to a piano bench and back with minimal delay. Actors doing their own accompaniment is a gimmick made popular by John Doyle in England and used fairly successfully in Broadway revivals of Company and Sweeney Todd. We’ve become accustomed to actors (in addition to saying lines, singing, and dancing) having to push furniture and sets around in the absence of stagehands. Now they have to be the orchestra, as well! (Which union can cover all this?) The device minimizes personnel and can sometimes pass as “innovation,” but, in the case of My Fair Lady, it serves the bottom line without serving the musical. This lady needs the whole stage. Many scenes are damaged by lack of performing space. The thrill of Eliza’s famous entrance in her white dress, for example, is totally lost as she squeezes on to the piano platform.
Big, old-fashioned musicals need specialists: In addition to leading players with star qualities who can sing and act, big musicals need trained singers who perform in ensemble with no ragged rhythms and no wrong notes. They need very experienced musical directors and choreographers and trained dancers and instrumentalists whose life’s work it is to play instruments. Specialists. Given enough time, Cap Rep people could exploit their primary gifts and still bring their secondary skills up to standard, but in professional theater, time is money. Specialists are required because they are fast.
For all the compromises that a small theater company must make to produce a traditional musical, one may wonder why they bother. In the available time, it simply asks too much of each individual. (Probably they do it of necessity—because audiences often prefer spending theater dollars on a compromised musical rather than a well-done drama.)
Even though this show needs specialists and more stage space in which to waltz, march and rant, the production has things worthy of your attention. See it for some excellent acting and directing, its new way of looking at certain characters, and for its plucky attempt to pare down a big musical and still preserve its essence. See it once again for My Fair Lady’s iconic status in the history of musical theater, and for its important role in the genre’s effort to grow up.
The show runs through December 20. Tickets are available at (518) 445-SHOW or www.capitalrep.org.