BWW Review: Dutch Apple MY FAIR LADY is a Visual Treat for Audiences
Before there was CATS, there was MY FAIR LADY, which, after opening on Broadway in 1956, was the first of the great "long term" musicals, with over 2,700 performances its first time around. Lerner and Loewe's adaptation of George Bernard Shaw's PYGMALION, with a little borrowing from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (if you don't think of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson when Professor Higgins and Colonel Pickering meet, you're missing something) and some help from costumes by the great Cecil Beaton, took Broadway and then the West End by storm. The best-selling album of 1956 was the original cast album of the Broadway production, with Julie Andrews and Rex Harrison.
Surely a great musical is great regardless of sets and costumes? Well, yes. But in some cases, if the sets and costumes aren't wonderful, the show won't be as wonderful as it should be. MY FAIR LADY was intended to be seen as well as heard; minimalist sets and plain black outfits have no place in something like this, as ornately designed as a royal wedding cake. Like that wedding cake, MY FAIR LADY is a giant confection, one whose ingredients are acting, singing, costumes, and sets; you must have it all for the show to live up to its well-deserved reputation as "the perfect musical."
Dean Sobon, at Dutch Apple Dinner Theatre, has combined a terrific - and interestingly chosen - cast with sets by Christine Peters and costumes by John P. White that have produced a perfectly fussy, frilly, sparkly, boisterous production that's, as it should be, as much fun to see as to hear.
Maxwell Porterfield's voice has held Dutch Apple audiences spellbound before, in its recent production of PHANTOM. She's back as Eliza Doolittle, Cockney flower seller of excruciating voice and appearance, who wants to become a lady. Professor Henry Higgins, the speech coach who believes that your voice makes your fortune (though he's barely worked for his), is James Taylor Odom, who manages to make Rex Harrison's sprechstimmel (patter recitation of songs) sound far easier than it is for someone who can really sing, and who is, quite interestingly, a younger Higgins than in most productions. The part is played, traditionally (outside of high school productions) by actors who are made out to be, easily, twice Eliza's age. They're closer to their sidekick character's age than to hers, and since she and Higgins are supposed to have the chemistry, more than one person has found the Eliza/Higgins pairing just a bit discomfiting. That's not so here; as soon as Eliza's cleaned up from the streets, there's evident attraction that makes her and Higgins' mutual wrath completely delightful.
But they're not the only fine casting and character interpretation. Bob Payne as Colonel Pickering, late of India and published linguist, who joins in on Higgins' bet that he can turn Eliza into a lady, is the perfect opposite of Higgins - courteous, charming, fatherly towards Eliza, and patient... all the things that Henry Higgins is incapable of being. That Higgins is so is astounding, considering that his mother, splendidly played by Sherry Konjura, is so polite, so civilized. In this production, she's also Eliza's champion even when Eliza is still in an embarrassing state of transition from Cockney to lady, because anyone who can throw off her son is her friend. This Mrs. Higgins can not only find pure glee in wrinkling Henry's starched shirt, but can applaud Eliza's desire to pull the rug out from under him. This Mrs. Higgins just might be a suffragette, as well; she's not particularly taken with her son's opinion of women, and she doesn't mind showing it.
Joshua Lehman is Alfred P. Doolittle, Eliza's father, and one of the great character parts of American musical theatre. A poor working-class stiff, his life is ruined by making money when Higgins throws an unexpected opportunity his way and the result includes being forced to become middle-class. Lehman is a good fit for the part, and it's hard not to enjoy how much fun he's having with it.
Highlights of this production include Lehman's rendition of "With A Little Bit of Luck" with the Cockney pub ensemble, and Eliza's "The Rain in Spain," as well as the ensemble's "Ascot Gavotte," in which the costumes are as much a set of characters as the people. The scene is, rightly, a test of costume design mettle, and White is not found wanting. It's hard to compete with Cecil Beaton's gowns at the Ascot races, but White has managed to do it. Lehman grabs the second act as well with his "Get Me to the Church on Time," but if there is any doubt as to Porterfield's voice after "The Rain in Spain" and "Just You Wait," her "Without You" in Mrs. Higgins' garden is a show stopper.
MY FAIR LADY is a show with everything, and it's hard to grow tired of seeing it. There are few musicals that stand up to being seen constantly, but this is one of those few, which certainly helps explain its being the first of the true long-run musicals. This production feels fresh thanks to the character reinterpretations, and it's a visual feast, as it should be, as well as a joy to hear. If there's any musical to which it's worth knowing all the songs by heart (and if you love musical theatre you very likely do), this is that show. If there's one show in the area that feels like spring now that the weather's finally here - and that may well remind you of Easter, with its enviable hat collection - Dutch Apple's MY FAIR LADY is it.
At Dutch Apple through May 14. Visit dutchapple.com for tickets and information.