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.