Thursday, April 29, 2010

A very fair Lady

Paul Farwell romps through his role as Alfred P. Doolittle. Photos by Neil Reynolds.

The "sleeper" hit of the spring season is probably Stoneham's My Fair Lady, which you still just have time to catch. The production hasn't benefited from particularly strong press - I don't think it even got a Globe review, and the rest of its notices were somewhat mixed. But positive word of mouth has built around the show, and though I was skeptical, I checked it out last week.

And I have to admit I was largely charmed; although not flawless, this is still a "loverly" version of the timeless classic. Actually, it's more than that - there are the usual compromises that come from squeezing a show this large onto a stage the size of Stoneham's, and there's one weak vocal performance, and one obvious wardrobe malfunction; but for the most part, the show sails smoothly along, and actually grows more absorbing as it unfolds. By the finale, thanks to an unusual chemistry between its two stars, I felt it was the most touching version of the musical I'd ever seen.

Do I have to go into the plot, the original play, etc.? I didn't think so; let's just skip that. The question you probably do have, of course, is how Stoneham deals with the long shadow of the first Broadway production (preserved, pretty much, in the Oscar-winning film). And the answer is: quite gracefully, in general; under the solid, sympathetic direction of Caitlin Lowans, the production both dodges slavish imitation of the original and turns its own more limited resources to best advantage.

Timothy John Smith, for instance, is a tad young to play Henry Higgins, but he carves out an individual niche for himself right next to Rex Harrison's without ever actually imitating that famous performance - and unlike Harrison, he doesn't have to 'speak-sing,' which brings an entire new dimension to such standards as "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face." And luckily, newcomer Robyn Lee (at left) has the pipes for Eliza, too. Alas, she lacks the vulnerability that makes Eliza initially so appealing, but her natural heartiness serves her well at Ascot and elsewhere. And once wounded by Higgins's egotism, Lee seemed to steadily grow in emotional stature - the final, famous tableau had a genuine air of rueful romance to it, as well as the sense that Eliza was not so much capitulating as returning on her own terms.

There were other strong performances scattered through the cast. Paul Farwell all but pranced through the role of Doolittle - a role he may have been born to play; and he was surrounded by affecting turns from Russell Garrett as Pickering, Ann Marie Shea as Higgins's mother, and Shannon Lee Jones as his weary housekeeper. I'd add to that list Michael Buckley as the callow, love-struck Freddy, except that Buckley's singing voice lacked the power to fill out the top notes of the transporting "On the Street Where You Live." Buckley was unusual in this cast, however, which was filled with good singers, even in its choruses and cockney quartets.

There were, to tell true, a few more gaps. The pit band was fine, but simply couldn't supply the sumptuousness of the original orchestrations, of course. Meanwhile Ilyse Robbins's choreography made the most of singers who weren't really dancers, and Kathryn Kawecki's elegant set played the same trick with the adequate, but not spacious, Stoneham stage. The costuming, by the reliable Stacey Stephens, was likewise fine - until it came time for the iconic costumes Eliza wears to Ascot and the ball, when Stephens inexplicably faltered. Oh, well. My advice to future producers of My Fair Lady is to not attempt to better Cecil Beaton - just channel him. As this version does with so many of the original's virtues.