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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
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
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
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
— Simon Saltzman
$29 to $59. Runs to July 21.
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