My Fair Lady (Review)

Showboat Majestic features an illuminating Eliza

Sep 18, 2009 at 2:06 pm

OK, the musical about schizophrenia, Next to Normal, that’s running on Broadway was nominated for some Tony Awards. In the 1940s, Kurt Weill’s Lady in the Dark (about psychoanalysis) ran for 500 performances. The 2008 Cincinnati Fringe Festival included a musical celebrating calculus and mathematical formulae called, appropriately enough, Calculus: The Musical, which Know Theatre revived successfully and then sent on a multi-city tour.

So it’s not surprising that there should be a successful — make that wildly successful — Broadway musical about the science of linguistics and the ways in which dialects can divide rather than unite a society that speaks a common language. I refer, of course, to the evergreen, ever-lilting, ever-intelligent Alan Lerner-Frederick Loewe 1956 musical My Fair Lady, a revival of which closes out the 2009 summer season on Showboat Majestic under Tim Perrino’s direction.

Much of this Fair Lady is brightly energetic and cleverly staged, though occasionally ragged in execution on the postage stamp stage, especially the Embassy Ball scene that ends Act I on a stumble. All 18 cast members give the piece their Showboat best. There’s an occasional lack of coordination between the live singing and the canned accompaniment (Steve Goers), and one or two numbers dash along at speeds that leave the singers panting. Costuming (Caren Young) is quite effective, with some dresses directly reflecting designs from the movie.

Since My Fair Lady is based on a play by iconoclastic writer George Bernard Shaw and carries forward some of his cerebration as well as his story line, it’s not likely to take a very romantic stance. Yes, boy meets girl, but in an unusual way. And whether boy and girl get together at the end is left to interpretation. If yes, it won’t be in any conventionally romantic way.

Outside of Covent Garden Opera House on an evening in March, linguists Henry Higgins (Michael Shawn Starks) and Hugh Pickering (Dennis Murphy) get into a bit of bother with a Cockney flower seller named Eliza Doolittle (Helen Anneliesa Raymond). Her accent is so thick she’s barely understandable. Ignoring her as a woman with feelings and perceiving her purely as an experiment to be pursued, they settle on a wager: Higgins can, he vows, transform Eliza into a woman he can pass off as a lady of society simply by teaching her to speak proper English.

Raymond is altogether fetching as Eliza the Experiment when she sings “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?” and “I Could Have Danced All Night” and even more so when she acts. Her neat performance illuminates the role.

After days of painful study, Eliza is taken to the Ascot Races, where her natural wit and charm burn through to Higgins’ mother (Angela Alexander Nalley). She so captivates vapid young Freddy Hill (Brendon North) that he lurks in her doorway singing “On the Street Where You Live.”

Looking every bit the lady, Eliza triumphs at the ball. A rival linguist declares her to be a princess in disguise.

Naturally, Higgins’ efforts have unexpected consequences. Eliza persists in being a woman with feelings, not an experiment in a Petrie dish. What the devil is he to do with her now that she’s transformed? Lerner altered Shaw’s conclusion somewhat but retained its Shavian ambiguity.

Other performances are mostly one note. Starks is louder and more harsh than Higgins should be. He’s significantly less effective than he was in last season’s Our Town at Covedale Center.

Murphy could seem more flummoxed as Pickering. Nalley mostly sneers, and Tom Highley should find and project the high irony that underpins every word spoken by Eliza’s father.

MY FAIR LADY, presented by Cincinnati Landmark Productions on the Showboat Majestic, continues through Sept. 27. Buy tickets, check out performance times and get venue details here.