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This article by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the May 19, 2004 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Review: ‘My Fair Lady’

In their distinctive white tie and tails, musical director Thomas Murray and his assistant, Charles Sundquist, are seated at back-to-back grand pianos perched on the second tier of designer John Culbert’s austere columns-supported, black-lacquered setting. They begin to play. What, no overture, no orchestra? That’s right, and no chorus either. Distilled, but not distorted, “My Fair Lady” returns leaner but no less a feast of music and wit than it ever was.

The classic Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe musical can usually be counted on to inspire a “loverly” production. But who would suspect it would inspire one so formidably reduced in size and spectacle as the current one, under the direction of Chicago director Gary Griffin. Griffin, who was lauded for his direction of the Donmar Warehouse production of “Pacific Overtures,” and more recently his concert staging of “Pardon My English” for City Center Encores, has prescribed a startling new vision and attitude for the classic show.

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 have always wondered what Shaw’s reaction would have been to the spectacular musical adaptation usually afforded it. And now I’m wondering how he would react to this stripped-down-to-essentials version that employs just 10 actors, 2 pianos, and sounds as often as not to be “Pygmalion” with songs. I like to believe that Shaw would always welcome the tunes, but probably be even more in awe of the simplicity of a production that keeps the spirit of his play alive. Under Griffin’s guidance, the modestly, but adroitly envisioned, show moves briskly during its succinctly-edited two hours and represents professionalism at it cleverest.

The performances are bright, but also decidedly more tongue-in-cheek and a mite broader than you may have seen before. In regard to this extraordinarily intelligent, non-sentimental musical, the cast is evidently not out to exploit or re-invent Shaw’s characters, but they do take chances while remaining only partially reverential.

As the professor of phonetics who attempts to transform a Cockney flower girl into a lady, Michael Cumpsty is not about to restrain Henry Higgins’ innate vinegar from turning downright sour. Cumpsty’s range as a versatile singer and actor in such Broadway shows as “Copenhagen,” “Forty Second Street,” and “Enchanted April” is broadened further as he dares to be a more hybrid Higgins, more deftly grumpy than unconscionably acerbic and more impossibly loathsome than idiosyncratic.

I applaud his mid-Atlantic interpretation, even if his Higgins ends up as a more of a priggish Americanized ass than a petulant romantic. And it is still possible to enjoy the aura of contemptible smugness that Cumpsty projects every minute he is on stage. This, even as he doesn’t quite convince us that he is, indeed, Shaw’s idea of the mother-fixated bachelor. While showing off his more than competent singing voice, Cumpsty individualizes his singspiel with penetrating inflections, particularly the memorable “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face.” It is something of a relief, nevertheless, to see a truly original and unorthodox Higgins and not a carbon copy of Rex Harrison, who created and immortalized the role in 1956.

And what more can you want than the pleasure of an almost mythological transformation from duckling to swan in auburn-hair Kate Fry’s broadly comical Eliza. From her rasping Cockney rendition of “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly” to the soaring sweetness of “I Could Have Danced All Night,” Fry makes Eliza feisty, common and radiant at the same time. There are times, however, when I felt as if Chicago-based Fry was trying a little too hard to be Fanny Brice at the Ascot Races.

Michael McCarty 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.” Creating an unexpectedly dissonant chord by plopping his rear end on the piano, and giving the cue to the musical director adds to his burlesqued performance.

Patricia Kilgarriff is a joy as the gracious but no-nonsense Mrs. Pearce, the housekeeper. As Freddy, the all-talk and no-action suitor, Jim Stanek allows his bright tenor voice to endearingly spark “On the Street where You Live.” Simon Jones, a veteran of Broadway and Off-Broadway and, indeed, a production of “My Fair Lady” at the Paper Mill Playhouse in which he played Higgins, is amiably winning as Colonel Pickering. But joy of joys, the inimitable farceur Jane Connell endowed Mrs. Higgins with layers of immediately hilarious upper crust. Supporting roles were all well portrayed but I suspect that Jeff Edgerton, who transforms himself delightfully three times, could have played three more roles to perfection.

You will be amazed how the bustling scene at the Covent Garden flower market, the formal posturing and posing at the Ascot (in shades of grey), and the graceful spins and turns of the elegant Embassy waltz have been condensed, but not compromised. They still provide a driving force within a series of witty, winning episodes that arrive naturally and compellingly out of the dramatic landscape. All is enhanced by Nan Cibula-Jenkins’ muted costumes, the perfect embroidery for one of the greatest scores ever written for the musical stage. Murray and Sundquist’s concerted playing of the score is exemplary. So, even when burdened with minor shortcomings, “My Fair Lady” leaves no doubt why it has remained the queen of American musicals.

My Fair Lady, Berlind Theater at McCarter, 91 University Place, Princeton. $32 to $50. 609-258-2787. Through Sunday, June 27.

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