Ask any theater buff to name the five best musicals of all time, and chances are My Fair Lady will make the list. Its incomparable score by Lerner and Loewe may never be surpassed for tunefulness and wit.
Trouble is, there's more to a musical than music, and that's where Beck Center's production lacks a bit of traction. Though the singers — backed by a lush 13-piece orchestra under the baton of Larry Goodpaster — acquit themselves admirably, much of the rest of the evening is bruised by barren staging, misdirected acting, and an enervating lack of pace.
This is surprising, since director Paul Gurgol has proven himself a master of musicals when he was trotting out one great production after another at Kalliope Stage in Cleveland Heights, and last year with Beck's Fiddler on the Roof. But this Lady is often slow and stiff, in danger of reverting to a statue — thus reversing the Pygmalion myth on which it's based.
As Eliza Doolittle, Valerie Reaper has a strong and honeyed singing voice, and she trills her songs such as "Just You Wait" and "Wouldn't It Be Loverly?" with pitch-perfect accuracy. But Eliza must have an inner spark in her eyes and demeanor, both in her Cockney phase and as the more elegant lady she is trained to be, and that is absent here. Amazingly, in the scene when Eliza is ignored by Professor Higgins after she's been shown off at a party, Reaper simply stands off to one side, impassive and dead-eyed. This works if you're waiting in line at the post office, but not so much on stage.
True to the performing history of the role, Bob Russell speak-sings his way through the numbers given to Higgins. And he is amusing in fits and starts. But he never establishes the Prof as an authority figure of high standards (linguistically or otherwise) and noble bearing. This Higgins is more of an irritating frat boy, which undercuts his fragile and contentious relationship with Eliza.
Most dialogue scenes play far too slowly, with gaps between lines as if every utterance deserved a dramatic pause. Other scenes are just ill conceived. In the "Lesson Sequence," which is supposed to convey a time-lapse vision of Eliza's voice drills, separated by choruses of "Poor Professor Higgins," it's all done as a continuous scene with no blackouts and no build. As a result, the humor is muted, and it all seems rather dull.
Fortunately, George Roth shows up now and then as Eliza's drunken and conniving dad; he nails his scenes and his songs, among them a delightful "With a Little Bit of Luck." In supporting roles, Dana Hart garners a few chuckles as Higgins' buddy Col. Pickering, and Hester Lewellen sadly underplays Mrs. Pearce, the housekeeper.
Russ Borski, a most talented set designer, allows the dark exterior of Higgins' home to double as its dark interior just by plopping down a few sticks of furniture. It's a glum and depressing vista, with the elegant silhouette of the orchestra, above and behind the stage, the only saving grace.
It's certainly possible to enjoy this production of My Fair Lady, by closing your eyes, dozing through the dialogue scenes, and just listening to the glorious music. But that seems a lot to ask for.
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