Marriott Theatre Mounts An Unusual And Loverly 'My Fair Lady'
At the "theater-in-the-round" Marriott Theatre in Chicago's northern suburb of Lincolnshire, for the next two months or so, theatergoers will find a different sort of "My Fair Lady" than the one they might expect to find. Now, it is hilarious, very truthful and detailed, and its leading performances are gutsy and intelligent, but the show emerges as a somewhat different theatrical animal than either George Bernard Shaw (author of its dramatic source, "Pygmalion") or Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe (the writers of the legendary 1956 Broadway musical) might have pictured. I think it's a good thing to invigorate the classics of past generations, and--have no fear--this beloved show, one of the crown jewels of the mid-century American musical, has not be undermined or ruined in any way. It's just, well, different.
Of course, playing any show originally structured for a proscenium arch in a theater with a square center platform for a stage (and aisles for entrances at the four corners) automatically means that changes will occur. This is what the Marriott is, of course, and the production's director, retiring Northwestern University professor Dominic Missimi, has staged more than 30 productions there. So, a "crossover" scene or two has been eliminated (no set changes to mask), some music between scenes has maybe been restructured or dropped (the ensemble needs more time to haul all those desks and chairs out of the way, or perhaps two scenes get combined into one because there's no reason to go anywhere else). At the end of the first act the final two scenes have been conflated and restructured.
And the whole show is now an opportunity for intimacy and focus in all sorts of new ways, inasmuch as the actors are never more than two dozen feet from the back row of seats, and indeed are frequently only a few inches away from the front row and the seats on the aisles. It's also about twenty minutes shorter than most productions of this talky script tend to be (which is probably fine), and has a cast of only 18, which turns out to be a lot more fine than I initially feared.
Now, I don't expect the average audience member to be extremely familiar with this show as originally written (or with the Oscar-winning and fairly faithful film adaptation, for that matter). Audiences should be able to show up at a theater knowing nothing about what they are about to see, and have a grand and meaningful time. However, a show this well known, this legendary (Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews in both New York and London, those two well-worn Columbia Records cast albums, and Audrey Hepburn in those Cecil Beaton gowns, singing with the voice of Marni Nixon), is familiar territory for older audiences and many younger ones. The Marriott's management surely knows this.
So, why risk casting an actress who seems much closer to 30 than 19 in the role of Eliza Doolittle, the 1912 Covent Garden flower girl with the Lisson Grove lingo who learns to "speak more genteel" from the "confirmed old bachelor," Professor Henry Higgins? Why cast an actress who is an exemplary practitioner of the art of contemporary musical theater pop belting, such that she appeared as Nessarose in the Chicago production of Stephen Schwartz's "Wicked" at the Oriental Theatre for three years? I'm talking about Heidi Kettenring, of course, a truly fine actress and singer. She is totally different, physically and vocally, than Andrews, Hepburn, Sally Ann Howes, Christine Andreas or just about any other actress you can name who has taken on this giant of a role at this level.
I'll tell you why they cast her--to give a great actress a chance to play the role of a lifetime, to bring her wit, intelligence and charisma to a character who needs all three, and to match strength of passion and performance with the Henry Higgins of Kevin Gudahl, another Chicago stage veteran who appears to be a little older than expected here, though all rumpled and steamrollery and brilliant (and with the energy of a man half his age). Are both actors playing these roles at the last possible moment in their careers? All the more reason to see this production, then.
When Kettenring and Gudahl go head to head at the top of Act Two about Higgins' slippers and his behavior at the Embassy Ball, I thought the theater might explode. In the conservatory scene, later in the Act, I forgot I was at a musical entirely, so wondrous and real was the acting and the emotional honesty (the scene did seem a bit stationary, however). And, earlier in the evening, during the time-lapse cinematic scene with the feather, the marbles, the chocolates and "The Rain in Spain," the realism with which Kettenring's Eliza learned to speak "the language of Shakespeare, Milton and the Bible" was reminiscent of the scene in William Gibson's "The Miracle Worker" when young Helen Keller learns that water has a name, and that it is "water." The miracle of speech was revealed to one who had never really spoken before. Breathtaking theater.
And these scenes weren't even Kettenring's best moments. Those came in the Ascot scene, where oft-told funny lines about gin, a hat and a spoon suddenly sounded fresh and newly thought up, and where you could actually see Eliza making sure that every syllable she uttered was correctly formed in her mouth, if not in her head. My only quibble with this scene? I didn't notice anyone else on stage but her.
I admit I do have some quibbles with Kettenring's performance in other spots. In the opening Covent Garden scene, her dialect didn't seem quite accurate to me, though perhaps she was doing what had been asked of her. Her singing voice, while amazingly well-balanced up to the belt high E, leaves her only two more notes for her to sing in her lovely soprano head voice (the end of "I Could Have Danced All Night" seemed a little disconnected from the rest of the song as a result). And director Missimi and music director Michael Mahler have evidently made the decision to have her sing only one verse of "Show Me," though the whole two-verse song can be done in the blink of an eye, and this time it's the song's single, final note that is not in Kettenring's money register. But, as I said, these are quibbles.
Missimi has surrounded Kettenring and Gudahl, these two boxers in the mainstage prize fight of the winter theatrical season, with a cast of likeable and talented performers. Don Forston (a walrus of a man who you would love to hoist a beer with, but would never want to take home with you) couldn't be bettered as Eliza's nutty and cuddly father, Alfred P. Doolittle. As Henry's mother, veteran actress Ann Whitney brings an unexpected homey quality to this upper crust Brit (I would love to see this Mrs. Higgins and this Mr. Doolittle meet on a street corner some evening).
As Colonel Pickering, the blustery but live-wire linguist who challenges Higgins to take on Eliza as a live-in pupil, David Lively is lively, indeed. As the housekeeper who makes her two new houseguests feel at home, Catherine Lord as Mrs. Pearce manages a remarkable burr-brogue accent that surprised me, but felt somehow right. Roger Mueller wasn't the cartoon one usually finds as Zoltan Karpathy, Higgins' former student turned rival. And as Freddy Eynford-Hill, recent Jeff Award-winning actor Max Quinlan delivered the brightest, highest sounding version of "On the Street Where You Live" that has ever been heard, though in his Ascot morning top hat he looked a little bit like a Disney animated woodland creature who discovers that a large leaf has surprisingly descended onto his head. I'm not sure any Freddy has been allowed to appear this unabashedly adorable before now. And he is clearly younger than Eliza. As I said before--it's just different.
The ensemble of singing and dancing performers pulls off their Cockney and Ascot demeanor and diction with aplomb (dialect coach Jill Walmsley Zager surely deserves a lot of credit), and the actors wear Nancy Missimi's detailed and telling costumes with delight and ease. The Cockney Quartet guys had a great blend, but the middle of the three Servant's Choruses was eliminated (a time saver, I guess). Gregory Isaac's properties were in good hands, important as they are in telling the physical story of this class and Culture Clash. Matt Raftery's choreography did the same job in contrast, and Thomas M. Ryan's scene designs (mainly ceiling pieces and some three dimensional wall sections) created a mood and an overall milieu. Lights, sound design and musical direction (there's an orchestra of nine) are up to the Marriott's usual high professional standards.
The ending of this tale has been controversial and a little muddled ever since Shaw first concocted the story in 1913. This production doesn't quite solve the problem either, I'm afraid, though this can't be held against them. There are references to moments earlier in the production, some character connection and good will, and a sense of interdependence. I guess we will never know what the future has in store for Eliza and Henry, and that's probably ok. "I've Grown Accustomed To Her Face" still moves the heart and stirs the mind.
As does "My Fair Lady." As I said, this giant of the musical theater literature is probably hardy enough to withstand whatever has been thrown at it over the years, and Marriott's production shows some fine insight and attention to detail, even as it sheds new light on key events and character choices. You owe it to yourself, and to Lerner and Loewe and Shaw, to see this production and make up your own mind, whatever your level of familiarity with the show. Newsflash! Great theater practitioners are grappling with great theater material. A great actress is sinking her teeth and her talent into a legendary role, met at every turn by a well-matched co-star. London comes alive, and Lincolnshire shines. Spend an evening challenging my intellect and my soul? Why, yes! And with frequent doses of hilarity and melody? Why, wouldn't it be loverly?
Photo credit: Peter Coombs and the Marriott Theatre.