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This article by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the June 26, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Drama Review: `My Fair Lady’

It was 19 years ago that the Paper Mill Playhouse last

staged "My Fair Lady," the classic Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick

Loewe musical. It was a "loverly" production, but not nearly

as lively and bright as the current one, under the direction of Robert

Johanson, who is marking this show as the end of his long and impressive

tenure as Paper Mill’s artistic director. Even the arrival on Broadway

next season of the acclaimed London production will be hard pressed

to top the splendid dramatic surprises, as well as the exciting choreographic

contribution in this positively ripping Paper Mill production.

This time be prepared to see a startling new attitude regarding the

show’s finale — Eliza’s response to Higgins’ famous last line,

"Eliza, where the devil are my slippers!" Also on a celebratory

note, George S. Irving, who played Eliza’s father Doolittle at the

Paper Mill in 1993, is once again on board this time playing Colonel

Pickering. And by George, he is a delight.

Long before "My Fair Lady," the musical, there was "Pygmalion,"

the source. Its author, George Bernard Shaw, is rumored to have been

so upset by the loud and frequent applause for his "pleasant"

play on opening night that he could not stand it and fled in disgust.

I wonder what Shaw’s reaction would be today to the musical adaptation?

I suspect that Shaw would welcome the tunes, but probably be more

in awe of the brilliance of the production values that is generally

afforded the show. Under Johanson’s guidance, the lavishly bedecked

show moves briskly during its three hours and represents Paper Mill’s

professionalism at it most polished.

The performances are bright, but also decidedly more tongue-in-cheek

and a mite broader than we have seen before. In regard to this extraordinarily

intelligent, non-sentimental musical, the cast is evidently not out

to exploit or re-invent the characters that Shaw created, but they

do take chances while also remaining reverential. Let’s say that the

principals are revealed on the cutting edge of Shaw’s delightful people.

As the professor of phonetics who attempts to transform a Cockney

flower girl into a lady, Paul Schoeffler, who is taking on his third

role at Paper Mill, is charmingly vinegary. Having impressed us previously

as Guido in "Nine," and as the Count in "Phantom,"

Schoeffler dares to be a Higgins who is more deftly amusing than unconscionably

acerbic and more impossibly endearing than loathsomely idiosyncratic.

But I applaud Schoeffler’s interpretation, even if his Higgins ends

up as a more petulant romantic than as a priggish ass.

And it is still possible to enjoy the spirit of smugness

that Schoeffler projects every minute he is on stage — even as

he convinces us that he is, indeed, Shaw’s idea of the passionless,

mother-fixated bachelor. While showing off his splendid singing voice,

Schoeffler individualizes his singspiel with penetrating inflections,

particularly the memorable "I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face."

What a relief it is not to see a carbon copy of Rex Harrison, the

original portrayer.

And what more can you want than the thrill of an almost mythological

transformation from duckling to swan in Glory Crampton’s spirited,

well-sung Eliza. From her rasping Cockney rendition of "Wouldn’t

It Be Loverly" to the soaring sweetness of "I Could Have Danced

All Night," Crampton makes Eliza both common and radiant at the

same time.

Ed Dixon makes no excuses for stealing the spotlight, as he cavorts

with sublime panache, as Eliza’s father Doolittle, the bloke who calls

himself one of "the undeserving poor." Brenda Cummings is

gracious as Mrs. Pearce, the housekeeper. As Freddy, the all-talk

and no-action suitor, Max Von Essen permits his bright tenor voice

to humorously spark "On the Street where You Live." The irrepressible

George S. Irving is amiably capricious as Colonel Pickering and Phyllis

Somerville’s Mrs. Higgins had upper crust to spare.

Whether it was the formal posturing and posing at the Ascot, the graceful

spins and turns of the elegant Embassy waltz, or the invigorating

street antics at the Covent Garden flower market, the choreography

of Michael Lichtefeld provides a driving force within a series of

witty, winning episodes that arrive naturally out of the dramatic

landscape.

As expected, the mobility and majesty of designer Michael Anania’s

settings are a marvel. However, I wonder if Gregory A. Poplyk’s costume

designs lacked a consistency of style. Except for the over-the-top

tackiness of Eliza’s opera cloak, and the one too many touches of

hot pink to the almost parodic homage to Cecil Beaton’s original black

and white Ascot costumes, the apparel, for the most part, provided

the perfect embroidery for one of the greatest scores ever written

for the musical theater. Even when burdened with such a minor shortcoming,

"My Fair Lady" leaves no doubt why it has remained the queen

of American musicals. And with this production Johanson leaves no

doubt that his extravagant artistic vision is more likely to be cherished

than chided.

— Simon Saltzman

My Fair Lady, Paper Mill, Brookside Drive, Millburn, 973-376-4343.

$29 to $59. Runs to July 21.


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