City Paper is not for tourists
It still rains in Spain, you’ll be glad to know, even if the music of that revelatory cloudburst seems a little muted, and that old cockney reprobate gets himself to the church on time, though he seems oddly rumpled when he arrives. The bones of My Fair Lady, in other words, prove sturdy enough that the glamorous old girl still seems reasonably shapely—at least during her better moments—in Signature Theatre’s slenderized two-piano version. It’s the frippery, mostly, the frills and furbelows Signature was supposedly swearing off, that make the company’s last outing in its Shirlington garage such an unexpectedly unsatisfying one.
Not that Eric Schaeffer’s staging overindulges in ruffles and feathers. The look he and his design team have created is often deliberately dreary, in fact, with monochrome costumes, a grim industrial setting, and lighting so muddy and murky that the world’s most famous diction lesson might be taking place at the bottom of the Thames. It’s all accented by the occasional splash of color and the odd sparkle of a jewel, true, but the mood in Schaeffer’s London is intentionally bleak, a visual nod toward the class distinctions and the economic divides that have always anchored the story. This charmer of a musical, in which a cockney girl gets cleaned up and taught to speak proper by a linguist who knows how to act but not how to behave, is based on a George Bernard Shaw play, of course—and Schaeffer wants to remind his audiences that even Shaw’s user-friendliest shows come with a spoonful of sociopolitics to help make the entertainment a little harder to swallow.
No, it’s the perplexing gestures with which Schaeffer has chosen to underscore that reminder, the awkward curlicues of commentary he grafts onto the show—and the unfinished flourishes that could’ve used a bit more attention—that add up to “frippery.” James Kronzer’s set certainly does, as a production note suggests, riff on the building’s girders and beams to pay homage to both the grime of Britain’s Industrial Age and the long love-hate relationship Signature’s had with its home in what used to be a bumper-plating factory. It also creates interesting niches and levels for servants and swells to pose in and parade on during numbers like “The Ascot Gavotte” and “The Servants Chorus.” (You’ll remember the latter, if you’ve seen the show, as the Act 1 lament wherein the maids and the footmen worry over the mental health of “poor Professor Higgins,” whose linguistic genius seems for a moment to have met its match in Eliza Doolittle’s stubborn working-class twang. The former is a major cultural touchstone, and if you don’t get the reference, you must go immediately and rent the George Cukor film. If only for the hats.)
But now and again the spare, open plan of Kronzer’s set also creates confusion about where the action might be taking place—it’s clear enough when we’re in Higgins’ library, what with the towers of books and the collections of handsome gramophones, but one conversation just prior to Eliza’s coming-out party at the embassy ball might just as well be taking place on the street where she lives. And the less said about the purple neon that carves a runway out of the charcoal-tile floor to frame the transformed Eliza’s grand entrance at that fancy-dress affair, the better.
No, wait: The neon, to give Kronzer credit, might be a deliberate echo of the vulgar violet plume on the hat costumer Jenn Miller gives Eliza to wear when she gate-crashes Higgins’ home—the feather is both a wistful reminder of the violets Eliza sells in Covent Garden and a knowing wink toward the gaudily crass confection atop Audrey Hepburn’s head when she makes the same entrance in the film, trying to look like a lady and succeeding mostly in looking like a tramp.
And that’s hardly the only homage Schaeffer and his crew serve up: The frozen poses among the Covent Garden vendors as the clock chimes in the opening sequence, the echo of those attitudes among the fancy folk in the ascot scene, the green beans an ensemble member snaps into a basket downstage right—they’re all little touches that acknowledge the specific charms of earlier productions, even as Schaeffer works to take this one in a radically different direction.
His choices, though, don’t always serve what he says is his goal. “The whole idea of our chorus as they change characters and costumes into becoming the upper-class,” he writes in a director’s note, “was to always expose part of what the person really is underneath.” It’s a nice idea in principle; in practice, it means he’s had Miller dress the men of his ensemble in frock coats minus the jacket sleeves when they’re playing posh gents, and in grimy tank-tops when they’re meant to be Eliza’s working-class mates, so that bare, muscular arms are always on display. (The women display much cleavage, so as not to shortchange the balance of the audience, which if nothing else proves entertaining in the more rousingly choreographed stretches of “Get Me to the Church on Time.”) The cutaway cutaways, alas, leave too many moments looking like ’80s Night at Chippendales, and the wife-beaters make nonsense out of the Act 2 scene that takes Eliza back to her old Covent Garden haunts to warm her hands over a fire-barrel with the guys. You’re meant to ache for a woman so transformed by a patrician’s insensitive meddling that she’s unrecognizable to her oldest friends; at Signature, you just worry that the guys are gonna catch a chill. The chorus remains largely an undifferentiated mass, in any case, so it’s unclear what Schaeffer understands the people underneath those unlikely outfits to be.
Various individual moments do work nicely: Sally Murphy’s trembling doe of an Eliza, triumphant at the ball but ignored by the backslapping men who’ve groomed her when they return to Higgins’ town house, perches on the edge of a library shelf, as though she’s just another of the artifacts the unfeeling old crab collects. There’s something undeniably amusing about the asperity with which Channez McQuay’s Mrs. Eynsford-Hill interposes the impenetrable barrier of her ascot hat between the glammed-up Eliza and her suddenly attentive son when Higgins takes his science project out for a test drive at the racetrack. And Dana Kreuger makes tart work of a late sequence in which Higgins’ forbidding old mother turns his own words against him.
The book scenes, in fact, have a genuineness and an agreeable intimacy in this production, even if their pacing sometimes seems a little sluggish—and even if Murphy’s Eliza and Andrew Long’s dyspeptic Higgins don’t demonstrate much of the combustible chemistry Schaeffer says he was aiming for when he cast “a younger, sexier Higgins than people expect.” Harry A. Winter’s Col. Pickering is an avuncular charmer, and if Terrence P. Currier’s Alfred Doolittle spends most of the show tuned to a pitch just one note lower than the rest of the cast, energy-wise, the 71-year-old Arena Stage veteran nonetheless serves up a nice little tap routine to punctuate one of his two big numbers—and the chorus builds the other into an explosive hambone act (another little shout-out, this one courtesy of choreographer Karma Camp, to the film’s more restrained soft-shoe-and-knee-slap moves).
And what of the music? Well, you’ll miss the swell of emotion that strings and brass can add to solo songs, not to mention the comic punctuation a burping woodwind can supply in a number like “Why Can’t the English?” Murphy and Long tend to let that book-scene intimacy bleed into their songs, which can sound less intimate than underpowered as a result. And while Long’s certainly more musical than many a Higgins (the part’s creator, Rex Harrison, famously talk-sang his way through his numbers), he’s singing his way past many of the jokes Alan Jay Lerner built into the lyrics.
Frederick Loewe’s melodies are more or less indestructible, though; they’ve survived a host of lounge lizards and karaoke culprits, so they’ll survive an underorchestrated evening or three. And happily, Will Gartshore’s hapless Freddy is one Londoner who’s not afraid to let his voice fill the space—people would stop and stare, indeed, if a lovestruck puppy sang so full-throatedly on a local sidewalk.
The ensemble bits, in any case, are rousing as can be, with Signature’s 19-member cast more than making up for the missing orchestra. They can’t gloss over all of this production’s infelicities as easily as they can fill in the harmonies, but when they’re all working together, the Signature troops make their dark Lady seem fair enough.CP