Michael L. Quintos
When Musical Theatre West's Executive Director Paul Garman declared that their current season-opening production of the 1956 Broadway classic MY FAIR LADY is actually the regional theater company's fourth time presenting the beloved musical comedy in their 63-year history, I had two initial thoughts: first, I wondered... wow, maybe their version is just so amazing, that it deserves repeat productions. Secondly... I thought that, perhaps, the show itself is so darn easy to put on and such a guaranteed crowd-pleaser, that a quickie production would be a cinch to recreate.
Well... whatever the motivation may have been, it doesn't really matter. I'm just ecstatic (and quite relieved) to report that MTW's irresistibly beguiling, top-notch local revival—now on stage at the Richard and Karen Carpenter Center for the Performing Arts in Long Beach through November 8—is a thoroughly enjoyable production from start to finish. While their 2015 regional mounting may not offer anything fresh or revisionist to the nearly 60-year-old theatrical staple, MTW's winning, nostalgia-baiting effort nonetheless retains the effervescent wit and jubilant spirit of the original, reminding audiences and long-time fans just how loverly this show is and continues to be.
Some shows, admittedly, cry out for a much-needed update or a clever reboot—offering a new twist or a 21st century tweak.
Wisely, Director/Choreographer Daniel Pelzig has staged a production of the musical adaptation of George Bernard Shaw's humorous play Pygmalion that feels as if it was plucked directly from its mid-century origins: from its time-worn yet still effectively antiqued backdrops and sets, to its gorgeous, convincingly vintage-looking costumes by Karen St. Pierre. The massive-sounding pit orchestra—conducted spritely under the baton of musical director Julie Lamoureux—revisits the incredible classic MY FAIR LADY songbook written by the legendary duo comprised of composer Frederick Loewe and lyricist Alan Jay Lerner (who also wrote the book) with buoyant, infectious glee. Upon hearing that incredible overture, I instantly got goosebumps. And just try to keep "Wouldn't It Be Loverly," "With A Little Bit of Luck," "On the Street Where You Live," "The Rain In Spain," "Get Me to the Church On Time," and, of course, "I Could Have Danced All Night" out of your head after hearing them performed beautifully again in this show. Just you wait!
That overused cliché—if it ain't broke, don't fix it—certainly applies here. Why mess with a near-perfect classic?
So how good was MTW's production exactly? Well, I did notice throughout the show that I could not stop smiling! Even in the show's minor melancholy moments, it almost feels as if this musical wants nothing more than to constantly shower its audience with great big bear hugs while lulling them with lovely songs and amusing dialogue. Filled with wit, charm, memorable tunes, and timeless, often uplifting humor, MY FAIR LADY is basically the comfort food of classic musicals.
Of course, it helps that the casting of MTW's MY FAIR LADY—from its outstanding leads to its terrific all-singing, all-dancing ensemble—is absolutely on point.
Cast as street flower peddler Eliza Doolittle—the young woman who transforms from a Cockney-accented, lower class "gutter-snipe" into a convincing proper society "lady"—the oh-so-loverly Katharine McDonough plays the title character with captivating charisma, heart-tugging vulnerability, and a stunning singing voice that soars to the rafters. This darling actress matches wits and barbs effortlessly with the equally superb Martin Kildare, who plays the gruff, unabashedly opinionated Professor Henry Higgins. As in Shaw's Pygmalion, Kildare's sublimely snobbish, upper-crust London linguistics expert concocts a bet with fellow aging scholar Colonel Pickering (the adorable Richard Gould) that he can improve the social status of a minimally-educated woman simply by improving her speech.
The Professor's seemingly foolish hypothesis is, understandably, met with some skepticism, particularly from Eliza's often absent (and often drunk) father Alfred (played by the robust Matthew Henerson), as well as the Professor's own head maid Mrs. Pearce (Debra Cardona). Even the Professor's own disagreeable mother Mrs. Higgins (Tony nominee Mary Gordon Murray) thinks this whole thing is quite an odd experiment.
Meanwhile, Eliza's alluring public display of unexpected boldness at the Ascot racetrack intrigues young Freddy Eynsford-Hill (adorkable Eric Michael Parker) who becomes instantly smitten, and then proceeds to stalk Eliza (harmlessly enough by musical theater standards, I guess) outside Professor Higgins' London flat. Unfortunately for Freddy, Eliza has no time to entertain gentleman callers, because she is simply too wrapped up in trying to get acknowledged by the one man she wants approval from desperately: Professor Higgins.
Miles above your typical community theater retread, MTW's exceptional, high-quality production makes it easy to fall in love with the musical all over again—a quality the last major national tour that visited So. Cal. had a very hard time accomplishing, despite having a cast that featured the one and only Marni Nixon, the often-used singing voice dubbed in for non-musical movie stars Deborah Kerr, Natalie Wood and, yes, Audrey Hepburn herself in the MY FAIR LADY big-screen adaptation. Here, MTW's bright musicality and vibrant, expressive performances help elevate the production and causes lots of uncontrollable smiling.
Alas, to love MY FAIR LADY—marbles and all—also requires a bit of forgiveness for many of its more antiquated displays of old-world human behavior, much of which may make audiences cringe a little by today's modern standards. It's a bit creepy to think that two grown, aging bachelors can simply just take in a 21-year-old off the streets and essentially play "dress up" with her—like their own personal living doll (an observation keenly brought up by Higgins' own mother in the play) while providing her food, shelter, and tutelage in becoming a proper lady, one that's palatable and acceptable to the VIP set. Today, it seems only Hugh Hefner and Donald Trump could possibly get away with such activities, though not without its own share of ickiness and judgment.
In addition, the show also highlights the great class divide (the rich revel in their finery at the Ascot races; the poor rise with the dawn to sell their wares in the dingy London streets), the lowly servitude of domestic servants, and... yep, a stalker guy hanging out "on the street" where his object of obsession resides. In 2015, that dude would probably be slapped with a restraining order and a blocked Twitter account.
But with all kidding aside, overall, if your taste aligns with old-fashioned musicals, beautiful Lerner and Loewe showtunes performed with excellent orchestrations and ebullient singing voices, time-honored witty banter, and classic musical theater elements, then you will absolutely be enchanted by MTW's latest Broadway-caliber offering. Just be forewarned... you'll be humming these tunes long after you've left the theater.
**Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ
Photos © Caught In The Moment Photography/Musical Theatre West. Review originally published in OnStage.
Final remaining performances of Musical Theatre West's production of MY FAIR LADY continue through Sunday, November 8, 2015 and are scheduled Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., with Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m.Tickets start at $20. Musical Theatre West performs at the Carpenter Performing Arts Center located at 6200 E. Atherton Street in Long Beach, CA. For tickets or for more information, please call 562-856-1999 x4 or visit online at www.musical.org