Clean it up a bit, dress it in fine, beautiful clothes, practice the manners, take it to the best places, and no one will ever notice the unreconstructed gutter-snipe beneath it all. In this case, I'm not talking about Eliza Doolittle, but the unavoidably sexist and now distressingly dated "My Fair Lady". Of course it's filled with some of the best songs ever written for the Broadway stage, and the script is a model of intelligence and subtlety, but there are presumptions and attitudes beneath it all that must be balanced expertly, along with a romance that is a paradigm of conditional commitment, or the whole thing becomes cold and slightly repellent. This production made it impossible for me to overlook precisely those things which, when carefully handled, make this unlikely tale so magical.
Judy Blazer is really very good as Eliza, bringing a marvelous Broadway voice to a characterization that travels a vast social distance, but never loses touch with her early, street experience. She makes the transition to being a "lady" with admirable, conscientious effort, and charming grace, and in the second act we do see the quandary she's been placed in, no longer belonging to the lower classes, and never really a secure part of the upper class. Ms. Blazer filled the role with vitality and consistency, and when she is dressed to impress, we're on her side and sharing in her achievement. "I Could Have Dance All Night" really does feel like a dream come true. What doesn't happen is a really credible connection with Henry Higgins. Try as she does, there's too little reason for her to care about how he feels toward her, and too little pain when he fails to feel enough. The chemistry simply isn't there between these two, and that defeats most of the play's romantic tension.
The bigger problem is David Pichette as Henry. Mr. Pichette is plenty talented enough, both vocally and dramatically, but he has been woefully mis-directed here. The problems begin in the very first scene. The initiating action, the "bet" with Colonel Pickering (Sean G. Griffin) that by teaching the flower-seller Eliza to speak properly he can pass her off as a member of high society, is a challenge between two men of great learning and intellect, but little emotional insight. But in this production we never see the kind of passionate obsession that accounts for such complete blindness toward Eliza as a woman, or toward Higgins's own emotions. Without that self-blinding pursuit of the purely intellectual, of the subject as object, too much of his character seems mean and petty.
Of course, he never really does open up. His final recognition of his affection is the brilliantly guarded "I've Grown Accustomed To Her Face", but it is precisely by allowing the audience to understand his heart better than he does that he becomes sympathetic, and amusing in his own inability to understand (as Pascal said) that "the heart has reasons the reason knows not of". Mr. Pichette seems to know precisely what he's doing throughout, so his actions seem more insensitive than amusing, more smugly selfish than sadly self-limiting. In addition, during the second act, when both Higgins and Eliza spend most of their time confronting how their lives have changed as a result of each other, it is only Eliza who seems to have a really personal stake in understanding what that change is, and what it means.
Where the production really comes to life is in the crowd scenes, especially when enlivened by the terrific performance of Laurence Ballard, as Eliza's father, Alfred Doolittle. The "Get Me To The Church on Time" number is the highlight of the evening, and the high-energy choreography of Casey Nicholaw carries everything along with variety, joy and vivacity. Ballard is virtually his own play, making the transition from a poor sot into a middle-class, respectable sot deliciously ironic and comic. Best of all, his relationships with his daughter, with Henry, and with his old friends all felt fully-realized and fully developed. His craftsmanship, for me, only underscored the problems of the other, more central characters.
The design of this production is absolutely gorgeous, with costumes by Gregory A. Poplyk that knock your eyes out, sets by Michael Anania that are grand, exquisitely detailed and perfectly elegant, and excellent conducting and musical direction from Joel Fram. All of the big settings, from the races at Ascot to the Mrs. Higgin's garden to the Embassy Ball, to Higgen's rich and beautifully finished study, were marvelous to behold. The men's formal wear and women's dresses were all dazzling.
I really wanted to love this show, as I've loved it in the past. Perhaps times and social consciousness have changed too much. Perhaps it just wasn't the right pairing of Henry and Eliza. The performances are certainly talented enough, but under David Bennett's direction the show remained inert, with the exception of the street scenes, and it never really felt like the sort of brilliant, high-minded breakthrough musical that it is. Or should I say, that it once was?
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