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BWW Review: ASU Gammage Presents the National Tour of MY FAIR LADY

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The National Tour of the show, considered to be Lerner and Loewe's greatest work, runs through December 12th at ASU Gammage in Tempe, AZ.

BWW Review: ASU Gammage Presents the National Tour of MY FAIR LADY

We are once again delighted to welcome David Appleford as a guest contributor to the pages of BroadwayWorld ~ as always, featuring his distinctive, well-balanced, and intelligent perspective on theatre. In this case, he shines the light on the National Tour of MY FAIR LADY at ASU Gammage.

Until his recent retirement, David was a beloved and highly esteemed presence in the performing arts scene, reporting on films and theatre at radio and TV stations around the country for more than thirty-five years and hosting his highly popular website, Valley Screen and Stage. With his keen sense of history and acute understanding of the world of theatre, his perceptive reviews set a standard for all of us.

Here now ~ From the keyboard of the inimitable David Appleford:

During the mid-fifties, at the height of her theatrical success, there was a story regarding the toast of the Great White Way, Mary Martin. The Broadway veteran had heard there was to be a new musical in town. She was interested in using it as a potential vehicle to further her career and asked if she could hear the score. Because of her box-office power and influence, the writers obliged. But after that meeting, Martin left, reportedly unimpressed. Later, when her husband asked how things went, Martin dismissed both the score and the book, and had no interest in the part of the leading lady, adding, "Those dear boys have lost their talent."

The 'boys' Mary Martin was referring to were Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe. The show, MY FAIR LADY, and the plum role that might have furthered her career had she taken interest was that of cockney flower-girl, Eliza Doolittle.

Today, the Lerner and Loewe score is considered to be their greatest work, and the show itself, a classic. One can't help wondering how different Broadway history might have been had Martin liked the show and developed the role. Or, if she was still alive, what she would have thought of the new, vibrant Lincoln Center Theater production now on tour and playing at ASU Gammage in Tempe until December 12.

After just a few minutes, once the curtain rises on this new presentation of a 1956 Broadway classic, we're right there in the middle of a busy, bustling evening in London's Convent Garden. You get the immediate impression of how the show is about to unfold and how different its presentation is about to become. It's as if director Bartlett Sher had taken Alan Jay Lerner's book, blown a layer of dust from its pages that had accumulated over the years, then re-vamped, re-imagined, and re-tooled the whole affair. The result is a theatrical joy ride that bursts into life the moment the giant pillars of Convent Garden are lowered from above and the opening scene is established. You're familiar with the work, but you've never seen it approached in quite this way before.

There are no noticeable changes to book or dialog. The story of an uneducated Cockney girl who sells flowers for a living and finds herself the subject of an experiment in linguistics by Professor Henry Higgins (Laird Mackintosh, a suitably commanding yet ultimately vulnerable and surprisingly likable version of a man who in past interpretations has rendered the character simply annoying) is still intact. What hits home is how characters are portrayed and settings revealed.

Under Sher's new direction, this Eliza Doolittle could hardly be called a shy, wilting flower. As played by understudy Nicole Ferguson, who took over the lead from regular player Shereen Ahmed for yesterday evening's opening night performance, this Eliza can be quite the powerhouse and physical presence when the moment calls for it.

Her character may lack the intellect and the social skills of her qualified teacher, but when pushed or unintentionally bullied by the men around her, her anger is immediately felt. She's an Eliza for the new millennium. And Ferguson rises to the occasion wonderfully. Her joy of having finally achieved a degree of success with the correct pronunciation of her vowels during The Rain In Spain is palpable, one the audience shares with her. That sense of elation carries into the next song. Ferguson's celebratory I Could Have Danced All Night, with its arms-open-wide big finish, brought the house down.

Catherine Zuber's costume design nicely captures the essence and classic elegance of Cecil Beaton's original designs for both the '56 production and the film; Marc Salzberg's sound takes on a life of its own; punters at the Ascot Races stare off into the distance while unseen race horses seem to gallop into the back of the theatre. But it's Michael Yeargan's sets you'll remember. With angled, giant pillars and a forced perspective of space as objects become smaller in the distance, Convent Garden is brought effectively to life.

However, it's the designer's detailed, two-story set of the professor's home on Wimpole Street that really steals the show. When Eliza angrily rages through the house with an unstoppable determination, declaring in song, "Just you wait, Henry Higgins, just you wait!" she stomps from room to room as the whole house turns on a revolving stage, doing its best to keep up with her forward movement. It's a terrific re-invention of a song presentation that perfectly displays director Sher's creativity.

However, that creativity works less successfully in the show's second act when Eliza's dad, the ne'er-do-well dustman, Alfred P Doolittle (Adam Grupper, gruff but fun) is finally about to marry the woman he's been living with for all these years. Doolittle staggers out into the streets after a night of boozing in his favorite pub. It's now early morning and there's only a short time left to enjoy the pleasures of being single before he finally ties the knot, declaring that whatever business he gets up to in the next couple of hours, just Get Me To The Church On Time. It's a great song and was always a show-stopper, but here, director Sher takes the scene in a new direction, and the result is a serious miscalculation.

Yeargan's front facade design of a London tavern opens up, revealing not so much the inside of a pub, but a burlesque music hall, bathed in a red-lighted glow. It's Doolittle's fantasy sequence in the middle of his song, but instead of imagining a turn-of-the-century English music hall, complete with London's cockney Pearly Kings and Queens, something his character would be more likely to imagine, we get Moulin Rouge. Director Sher appears to have taken inspiration from British film director Ken Russell's excessive fantasy sequences; he's imported Can-Can girls (and boys in drag) to dance around and celebrate Doolittle's oncoming wedding night. The longer the sequence continues, the more unnecessarily indulgent and wrong it becomes. It's an unfortunate blot on an otherwise sparkling, lavish production, and even though Gammage's opening night audience enthusiastically applauded the scene at its conclusion, it simply doesn't work.

MY FAIR LADY runs through December 12th at ASU Gammage ~ 1200 S. Forest Avenue, Tempe, AZ ~ 480-965-3434 ~ https://www.asugammage.com/

Photo credit to Joan Marcus


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