Wednesday, June 8, 2011
SHAW FESTIVAL HITS JACKPOT WITH MY FAIR LADY
My Fair Lady should be a natural for the Shaw Festival. It is based on Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion and it is one of the greatest Broadway musicals of all time. All you need is a good production and you have hit a jackpot. And that is precisely what has happened with the current production at the Festival Theatre.
No doubt, there are people who have not seen the play or the musical or the two films of Pygmalion or My Fair Lady but surely there cannot be too many who have not had some contact with one of them.
For those dying to be reminded, the Greek myth of Pygmalion and Galatea is about the creation of a thing of surpassing beauty from nothing. Pygmalion sculpted a beautiful woman from a piece of ivory and he fell in love with her. The goddess Aphrodite eventually gave life to the statue.
Shaw adopted the myth to his own political ideals of social engineering by preaching that people could rise in society if they spoke English properly. Thus Henry Higgins, a professor of phonetics, undertakes to take Eliza, a squashed cabbage leaf of a flower girl, as he calls her, and turn her into a duchess by teaching her how to speak English beautifully.
Alan Jay Lerner (book and lyrics) and Frederick Loewe (music) adapted the play and created My Fair Lady in 1956.
Thanks to Shaw, the musical has an intelligent, highly literate script that stands head and shoulders above most musicals. Helped by Lerner’s lyrics, Loewe composed some of the finest and most memorable songs and the result was Broadway history.
The Shaw Festival production is directed by Molly Smith and it captures the essence of the musical. Deborah Hay as Eliza Doolittle is simply superb. She can be beautifully lyrical in “Wouldn’t it be Loverly” and “I Could Have Danced All Night” and belt out “Just You Wait” with considerable force.
A lot is expected of whoever plays the gruff, self-centered Professor Higgins. The vocal requirements are not that onerous (it’s mostly recitative) but he does have to be dramatic and quite funny in spite of himself. “Why Can’t the English Learn to Speak?” and “Why Can’t a Woman be More Like a Man?” he will ask with a straight face and deliver lines of wit and sheer delight. Benedict Campbell does an exceptional job in the role and he can also sing.
Eliza’s father, Alfred Doolittle, the common dustman-cum-philosopher, is a relatively minor but very memorable role. The generously proportioned Neil Barclay makes sure that Doolittle remains memorable in his scene with Higgins and his delivery of his two signature songs “With A Little Bit of Luck” and “Get Me to the Church on Time”.
Patrick Galligan gets star billing as Higgins’ sidekick Colonel Pickering. When the two first meet, Higgins guesses from his accent that Pickering’s lineage is “Cheltenham, Harrow, Cambridge and India.” In the case of Galligan, he should have added “and a very long stay in Southern Ontario with serious effects on your accent.” Galligan gets to sing/recite the awful “You Did It” without improving it.
In fairness, accents were generally what you expect from Canadian actors. They range from the awful to the acceptable under duress and one is best advised to shut up and put up with them.
The sets and costumes are quite another thing. The opening scene with steel girders and a sort of column is acceptable as Covent Garden Market in front of St. Paul’s Church, London. There is no hint of a church in this production but let’s move on.
Prof. Higgins’ residence in Wimpole Street is in dire need of a decorator. His posh study resembles a series of gazebos or oversized birdcages. They form the basis for the Ascot and the other scenes and all one can say is that they are awful.
The dresses for the high society scene at the race course look like colourful costumes from some African tribal dance. I have no idea what Set Designer Ken MacDonald and Costume Designer Judith Bowden had in mind. I was reminded by a friend, however, that the dresses at the recent royal wedding bore a frightful similarity to what was on stage in Niagara-on-the-Lake.
These are small matters of taste that take away very little from this robust and exceptionally well-done production that should prove the hit of the Festival’s 50th anniversary.
My Fair Lady by Alan Jay Lerner (book & lyrics) and Frederick Loewe (music) opened on May 28 and will continue until October 30, 2011 at the Festival Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. www.shawfest.com.