MY FAIR LADY – It Be “Loverly”

by Jack Shaw

Many “loverly” things graced the Millville Senior High School theatre for the Off Broad Street Players (OBSP) production of the classic musical MY FAIR LADY. The music was so beautiful that I can still hear it at home in my head. Even if you are not a theatre person, you know some of the songs of Lerner and Loewe like Wouldn’t It Be Loverly, Get Me to The Church On Time, I Could Have Danced All Night and The Rain in Spain…to name just a few. The fantastic costumes lit up the stage with color and variety, taking the audience back to 1912 and George Bernard Shaw’s PYGMALION on which the musical is based. It’s a long show–the full three hours, but worth it for its musicality and costumes alone.

Kaitlyn Cox sings “Eliza” flawlessly and beautifully. John Muller who plays “Henry” is in great form as well. Close your eyes and you may see Julie Andrews and Rex Harrison, but we don’t want to close our eyes or we’ll miss many other fine musical performances. Richard Curcio does a credible job with “Colonel Pickering,” and Daryl Halter stands out as “Alfred P. Doolittle,” Eliza’s father. And, let’s not leave out noticing Andrew Jarema’s fine tenor as “Freddie Eynsford-Hill.” The music was truly breathtaking.

Cast members from Off Broad Street Players' MY FAIR LADY: (l. to r.) Andrew Jarema, Chrissie Capece, Cara May, John Muller, Katie Cox, Jason Smith, John Stephan, CJ Jarema. The musical runs through August 7 in Millville NJ.

I suspect the show’s musical success can be attributed, not only to the fine singers and orchestra, but also the play’s director, Walter A. Webster. The wonderful costumes were the work of Kim Hitchner, who truly set the stage, putting us all in the place we needed to be. I think it may have been difficult with wide range of sizes and ages, but she did a great job of making it look easy. There was a healthy audience of mixed ages in attendance for the first show. I like to see that variety in an audience.

The orchestra, under the leadership of John Drechen, did a very nice job as well. I was glad they were there at times and wished they weren’t at other times. Such a great theatre and no pit. I’ve seen a number of shows lately that actually have the orchestra off stage, way backstage or off to the side and give audience’s a cleaner view and the sound doesn’t overwhelm the singers. It may lose the initial appearance of seeing shows the way they used to be, but it’s not the same really; those theaters had orchestra pits, which kept the volume at a more manageable level by just being there. Having an orchestra situated away from the singers also prevents feedback from the microphones in today’s world. Sitting too close to the orchestra meant missing out on some of the songs unless the singer is down center and singing to the audience so I moved. But also because I wanted to see the play from a different angle in the rather large auditorium.

I was impressed from any angle, but the singers seemed to stay front and center. While most musicals do have numbers that break the fourth wall, other numbers are intended to be more intimate. As part of the action, actors sing or include others as they sing in their world and cheat toward the audience. I understand the usual mic problems and why an actor might have to sing in a particular spot, but it does limit the actor and the performance. In spite of the mic problems, this was still a nice show in so many ways and very entertaining.

Generally the acting between and with the songs worked (I always consider a song is acted, too), but I think the “in-betweens” could have been better. I liked the performances of the leads in general and the ensemble should be congratulated for being able to be dirty street people and elegant upper class. What was missing for me was the depth of meaning and thought I know to be in this play, but I also think I know the reasons for that. This sounds like a major flaw; I assure you it isn’t, but if unchallenged it can make a difference between doing musical theatre and using a theatre to present musical numbers. That’s an extreme case, I admit. However, my basic rule of reviewing is to look at a play as it was intended to be seen.

Leaving the deeper acting behind happens in musicals because we spend a lot of time getting the music just perfect and I think that happened here. In some cases, the lines are said perfectly, too, but the life is not behind them. The staging of larger pieces of action using the entire stage came off better than those set in Professor Higgins’ study. Not everything in front of the curtain needs to be center stage, unless…we have a mic problem again.

For some reason, the actors felt compelled to not ever be too far from one another, giving us less movement. I would have liked to see a more animated Higgins in contrast to the Colonel. I’m wondering if that is because the rehearsal area was very small in comparison, or if mics were so necessary that the actors didn’t stray off too far and not be heard. Unfortunately, this is where stage movement, not dancing or a crowd scene, tells us what’s happening if it is used properly and I don’t think it was. I could barely hear a couple of scenes outside the study–outside of mic range perhaps?

OBSP’s theatre production of MY FAIR LADY entertained its community audience easily in this beautiful high school theatre auditorium. For once a big stage not overflowing with people. The casting for this show had to be quite unusual; it seemed the actors were fairly young or my age (meaning older) for the most part. That’s not a bad thing unless there’s romance or hinted romance or…

Even Alan Jay Lerner wasn’t quite sure where to take the romance. It seems it was a requirement for musicals back then, and is totally absent in the Shaw play, making it harder to create here. However, with Lerner’s story, I feel the need for some attraction, some sexual tension to make the “Eliza” and “Henry” relationship work. Here, the relationship is unbelievable for a couple of reasons. One, the age difference, but two, more importantly that relationship does not come out through the acting that takes place without song.

In some ways, the choreographed ensemble pieces worked better and played the moment; however, there were some standout moments by individual actors besides Henry and Eliza, who were also terrific. I liked Doreen Dacosta who played “Mrs. Higgins,” although I think she is too young to be Henry’s mother. I mean that in the nicest way. Again, Daryl Halter and Richard Curcio had some great moments in acting as well.

This is one of those moments where someone interrupts and exclaims, “This is a singer’s musical not an actor’s musical!” Actually it is both. Yes, the songs are incredible, but the dialogue when there is extensive dialogue is not just about dialect. We are looking at class struggle, class attitudes and changing attitudes. And, character defining. “Mrs. Higgins” is critical in her short time on stage in telling us about her son’s character and quirkiness in the same way “Mr. Doolittle” tells us about “Eliza.” So what they say has to make an impact on us.

What distinguishes a memorable musical, besides a good story and catchy music, is the ability of the music to drive the story, and that has been key to this play’s success. Rest on the music alone and you forget this was originally Shaw, who meant all his plays to be a discussion–an essay in play form. His plays are not easy to act in or make into a musical, but his intellectual dialogue is what he is famous for. This would also be true for PYGMALION; however, there are some of the same ideas in this much-changed version called MY FAIR LADY.

To explain, I have to digress a bit. MY FAIR LADY takes place in 1912–a time when people, like Professor Higgins, felt that by exposing the bottom of society to the upper part, you could endow upon them the qualities, i.e., character, manners, etc., of the upper class and make the test case virtually indistinguishable. An incident in the life of Charles Darwin sent him on a path that would change how we look at our place in the universe. He witnessed the purchase of three native boys and the attempt by his church-going fellows to educate them and convert them to Christianity. When the boys were returned to the island, they immediately reverted to the island “savages” they were before. Darwin was inspired to look for other answers. A thought that would have been on the mind of Shaw’s audience about Eliza. His audience would have had a different view than we do, but the point is–the play has some strong points that are buried when the acting is used to springboard to song.

You could argue that this is more Alan Jay Lerner’s story than Shaw’s and not PYGMALION–and you would be correct; however it is based on Shaw’s play. Lerner and Loewe even risked copyright infringement by developing the play as a musical because there was so much clamor by others do it. Our author and lyricist got there first. And, it was because the ideas were thought-provoking; it was the story-line that didn’t lend itself well to musical portrayal.

Ironically, what made this play so spectacular to critics and audience’s alike was that the story was so tied to the songs and the songs tied to the story.

Lerner and Loewe had to invent a place to use the ensemble and other actors to make it a musical as well as a love interest or two, which they did. Trying to stay true to the original is, perhaps, one reason for the ambiguous ending. It is not necessarily the age difference between potential lovers (Freddy, Eliza, Henry and even the Colonel), which wasn’t as big a deal around 1912. Love doesn’t have to be romantic, but you have to understand or at least get an inkling of its nature. Here in this production it was hard to tell until the end that there had been anything really brewing at all. Then you wonder and question. At this point we should be enthralled and anxious for our characters. Instead we’re wondering how you will handle this.

As I mentioned earlier, Shaw did not write plays that had nothing to say; in fact, he did not write plays that were easy to act. Therefore, it takes more study to bring out the ideas that are there. Concentrate on only the music and, while you have a theatre full of beautiful music, you may miss having the extraordinary musical theatre experience.

MY FAIR LADY is a great musical theatre experience not to be missed. The cockney is hard to understand. To me, it’s always hard to understand so don’t worry. It’s classic for a reason. I could tell you how many Tony Awards it won, but you know it’s a lot. The Off Broad Street Players’ production is a great community theatre effort and well worth seeing–for the whole family.

Book and Lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner
Music by Frederick Loewe
Directed by Walter Webster
July 29-August 7, 2011
Off Broad Street Players
Millville Sr High School
200 Wade Blvd
Millville NJ 08332

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