Sunday, September 7, 2003

Steamlined 'My Fair Lady' stays mainly on the plain side

By Jackie Demaline
The Cincinnati Enquirer

There are a handful of defining moments in American musical theater. This is one of them:

In the middle of the night, a young woman, beyond exhaustion, somehow marshals her remaining strength to attempt to conquer an undiscovered country - the world that will open to her if she can somehow capture the divine gift of articulate speech.

And, oh so slowly, she enunciates, "The rain in Spain stays mainly on the plain."

She is, of course, Eliza Doolittle, Cockney flower girl who will transform not merely into My Fair Lady but her own woman as irascible and supremely self-satisfied bachelor Henry Higgins teaches her to speak properly. (Higgins learns a few things along the way, too.)

Playhouse in the Park opens its season with a streamlined My Fair Lady that boasts a mere 10 actors, two pianos (a big round of applause to pianists Steven Gross and Henry Palkes), and a single set.

I repeat: "The rain in Spain stays mainly on the plain."

Bad shows need frou-frou, great theater can look just as good (and better, sometimes) stripped to the bones. Michael Philippi's set is a perfectly serviceable stand-in for the show's numerous shifts of mostly upper crust London locale.

Musical standards beautifully sung hardly need big orchestration.

The shivers are still sent racing up your spine. You still exit the theater knowing, (to borrow a line from 42nd Street) that musical comedy are two of the most beautiful words in the English language.

This isn't the best My Fair Lady you'll ever see, but as Crista Moore's Eliza exuberantly trumps "The Rain in Spain" with "I Could Have Danced All Night," it's enough.

For everyone who loves My Fair Lady, a decent revival is like a visit with a dear, old friend.

For everyone who doesn't know My Fair Lady, this is a reasonable introduction, although Lerner and Loewe's best score occasionally suffers from lack of body in chorus numbers.

These last few years, directors have been noodling with classic musicals, not just reviving them but "re-considering" and "re-inventing." Let's call My Fair Lady a "reduction."

There's nothing particularly illuminating about this re-working, unless you've been distracted by sets and orchestrations and big dance numbers for the last almost 50 years, focusing instead on George Bernard Shaw's intelligent and witty discourse on topics including social order and class distinction.

My chief problem with the Playhouse My Fair Lady is that director Susan Booth paces the show at full gallop. (Is she worried about shortened attention spans in the 21st century?) Among the things she doesn't make time for is letting the show find its heart, or for us to give our hearts to Eliza and Higgins.

It's as if she expects the audience, familiar with beloved material, to know the relationships (which of course we do) and she speeds along, leaving us to fill in the blanks.

The actors perform the shorthand perfectly, but I felt shortchanged.

Moore, a two-time Tony Award nominee, looks stunning in Linda Roethke's elegant costumes and has a voice made for original Broadway cast recordings. She sings Eliza splendidly. I suppose it's ill natured of me to mention that she's a bit too old for the role, but she is.

Neal Benari, also a Broadway veteran, is an appealing Higgins, although his performance, especially, seems to be hurried along. No complaints about his rendition of "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face."

In a hard-working ensemble, Russell Leib as Higgins' sidekick Colonel Pickering and Alan Souza as Eliza's impassioned swain Freddie make the most of their supporting roles.

My Fair Lady, through Oct. 3, Playhouse in the Park Marx Theatre, 421-3888.



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