Regional Theater Review: MY FAIR LADY (Oregon Shakespeare Festival)

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by Tony Frankel on August 24, 2013

in Theater-Regional

A LOVERLY LITTLE LADY

The 1956 musical My Fair Lady, based on George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, was so transplendent in production values that the myriad subsequent revivals all strive for the same glorious sets and highly ornate costumes, even going so far as to Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema review of Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s MY FAIR LADYemulate Cecil Beaton’s original costume design. While the prohibitive costs involved with producing big-budget musicals these days has actually resulted in small-scale productions, the results have been startling. From storefront theaters to Off-Broadway, erstwhile major Broadway shows are finding a new life, aided by visionary directors such as Amanda Dehnert, whose wholly reimagined and shockingly successful rendition of Lerner and Loewe’s sophisticated musical is currently playing at Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema review of Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s MY FAIR LADYWhile the music, lyrics and libretto remain intact, Dehnert, who also serves as music director, has placed two grand pianos smack dab in the center of the stage, where Matt Goodrich and Ron Ochs play Trude Rittman’s two-piano arrangement based on the orchestrations of Robert Russell Bennett and Philip J. Lang. Surrounding these accomplished musicians – who attack their instruments like the Labèque sisters – is an atmosphere best described as a mash-up of Bertolt Brecht and an Edwardian Music Hall, where actors sit on a ragtag collection of old theater seats upstage center watching the action like a Greek Chorus. In telling the tale of Henry Higgins, a puffed-up upper-class grammarian, and Eliza Doolittle, his lower-class, flower girl protégé whom Higgins turns into a lady by changing her speech, the actors change costumes in front of us and occasionally speak directly to the audience.

The highly inventive and often boisterous staging sheds new light on the familiar, transforming “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?” from a rousing musical comedy number into a plaintive ballad, and “On the Street Where You Live” from a syrupy romantic standard into a silly and hilarious mockup of puppy love. Gone also is traditional Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema review of Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s MY FAIR LADYcasting, but since this cast is directed to tell the story (as opposed to actually inhabiting their characters), it makes no difference that Freddy Eynsford-Hill (Ken Robinson), who has a crush on Eliza in 1912 London, is black or that his white mother looks younger than he does.

This isn’t to say that Dehnert gets to the heart of the material: the love story that dare not speak its name. In Shaw’s original play, which he insisted was not a love story, the professor of phonetics and the renovated Cockney girl do not end up together, yet Lerner & Loewe instinctively knew that’s what audiences wanted. This is why Eliza enigmatically returns to Henry’s doorstep as the curtain goes down. But because Dehnert concentrates on Eliza’s independence, eschewing any chemistry between Rachel Warren’s fetching Eliza and Jonathan Haugen’s manic Higgins, the second act lacks a forward thrust.

Still, that’s not what this feel-good interpretation is about. Haugen’s Denholm Elliot-like take on Higgins is operatic, rubbery, flamboyant, slick, over-the-top and bombastic, coming across more like a circus barker than a petulant man who ultimately fears solitude after months with his pupil. If there were any scenery to Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema review of Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s MY FAIR LADYspeak of, Haugen would chew it up but good. Indeed, his introductory song “Why Can’t the English?” is performed with such rapidity that Lerner’s clever lyrics barely have time to land.

Yet even though we are not emotionally on the side of the main characters, the frenetic and lightning-speed proceedings are consistently entertaining. Unlike The Fantasticks, which Dehnert reimagined as a mystical love story told in a defunct seaside amusement park, she goes for pure theatrics in My Fair Lady – much like she did in her gender-bending Julius Caesar at OSF two seasons ago. While the director is the star of her own show, the chorus is stupendous, the vocals are spectacular, and the results are consistently surprising. Also worth mentioning are David Kelly’s unassuming and droll Pickering, Anthony Heald’s wry and infectiously understated Alfred Doolittle, and Miriam A. Laube’s knowing and companionable Mrs. Pearce, a welcome change from previous portrayals of Higgins’ housekeeper as a stuffy matron. Under Dehnert’s watch, we are witnessing the birth of an entirely new style of American Musical Theater, as refreshing as a rainstorm after the ongoing Oregon drought.

Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema review of Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s MY FAIR LADY

photos by Jenny Graham

My Fair Lady
Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland
ends on November 3, 2013
for tickets, call 800.219.8161 or visit OSF

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