What a fine night for the long-awaited, much anticipated opening of the splendid Jefferson Performing Arts Center.
Although “My Fair Lady” may not be the indisputable triumph everyone might have hoped for, director Clayton Phillips’ production resounds with many shining moments and portends an exciting future for this state of the art theater.
Adapted from Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion” in 1956 by composer Frederick Loewe and lyricist Alan Jay Lerner, this revered musical ran for a then-record 2,717 Broadway performances.
Conducting a magnificent 35-piece orchestra, Dennis Assaf masterfully brings out the melodic nuances, intricacies and multi-dimensional harmonics of these glorious tunes.
Arrogant professor of phonetics Henry Higgins (Kris Shaw) wagers that in six months, he can transform a Cockney flower girl, Eliza (Micah Richerand Desonier), into a duchess so convincingly that she will fool the highest members of the Edwardian upper class.
With an air of self-satisfaction and intellectual superiority, Kris Shaw treads a tricky line in the characterization of Higgins. The key is to craft his insulting behavior as impulsive rather than considered; the difference between an amusing curmudgeon and, well, just being mean. His “Ordinary Man” displays a man utterly out of touch with self-awareness. The sincerity he brings to “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” is movingly impressive.
For some reason, Phillips and set designer Kristin Blatchford felt compelled to use every inch of the wide performance space (which must also accommodate future operas). For the cleverly staged group numbers, featuring a cast of 24, this choice works well. But the cavernous construction of Higgins’ study impedes the necessary intimacy, as the actors appear worlds apart.
Endlessly appealing, Desonier’s irresistible Eliza is the standout performance of the night.
With her blend of freshness, feistiness and charm, she lights up her every scene. “I Could Have Danced All Night” is the showstopper it was meant to be.
Outfitted in costume designer Robert Fletcher’s finest achievement, her spirited exhibition of the “new small talk” at the ultra-upper class Ascot Gavotte races becomes the most thoroughly delightful scene of the evening.
As Col. Pickering, Higgins’ courteous cohort who instinctively knows “a lady is not how she behaves, but how she is treated,” Louis Dudoussat creates a simple man of quiet dignity.
The genius of Bernard Shaw lay in his ability to take a conventionally held notion — such as views on poverty and class distinctions — and spin its logic upside-down with mind-dazzlingly results. The bulk of such acrobatics fall to the crowd-pleasing character of dustman Alfred Doolittle (Jimmy Murphy), Eliza’s conniving father and shameless moral equivocator.
“If we listen to this man for another minute, we’ll have no convictions left,” concludes an astounded Higgins who finds Doolittle to be a “philosophical genius.”
With perhaps a tad too many sleazy bits, but bolstered by Lynne Bordelon’s inventive choreography, Murphy’s vigorous “Get Me to the Church on Time” rocks the house.
In a show where qualities of speech are essential, a dialect coach would have been welcome.
A more glaring problem is a sound design that overly amplifies the voices to a point of distraction.
Too loud and haphazardly inconsistent, the harsh, tinny vocal quality overwhelms the orchestra’s warmth and, in such pieces as “Would It Be Loverly,” much of music director Donna Clavijo’s fine work.
“My Fair Lady’s” revised ending is a legendary source of controversy. In “Pygmalion,” Eliza marries Freddy, and the conclusion is distinctly a tale of the student transcending the teacher.
In Lerner’s romanticized finale, a submissive Eliza returns to Higgins. Phillips, in a knowing move, cuts Higgins’ final line of — “Eliza? Where the devil are my slippers?”
The omission does little to soften the disconcerting thought that Eliza returns to a man who, however unwitting, is an unabashed misogynist.
Even the most ardent critics of the politically correct might find this fairytale contrivance a bit troubling.
Bruce Burgun is a retired theater professor from Indiana University and a member of the American Theatre Critics Association.