Sunday, April 2, 2017

Beef & Boards Dinner Theatre sparkles in new production of 'My Fair Lady'

George Bernard Shaw's anti-romantic inclinations made the adaptation of his play "Pygmalion" almost a countercultural project in the 1950s, when musical comedy was exclusively in the grip of a couple's love winning out over obstacles. Yet "My Fair Lady" became a major hit on the strength of the wit and verve of Alan Jay Lerner's book and lyrics and Frederick Loewe's enchanting music. The show's qualities are confirmed when it enjoys such a spirited revival as the one Beef & Boards Dinner Theatre opened last week.

First meeting: Eliza  Doolittle tries to persuade Henry Higins to buy a flower.
As seen Saturday night, the production benefits from the savvy of Eddie Curry, who also plays Alfred P. Doolittle. Thus Curry: B&B's artistic director, finesses the formidable challenge of shaping a show in which he's also a star. This "My Fair Lady" has little of B&B's overemphasis on getting everything across with a bang, and yet the production had plenty of sparkle while staying within the captivating 60-year-old idiom of Shaw-turned-Broadway.

Kimberly Doreen Burns plays Eliza Doolittle with trim command of all aspects of the role. Handling the character's learned elegance with aplomb, she at first wailed feistily as the Cockney flower girl noticed by phoneticist Henry Higgins outside Covent Garden, where London's urban classes used to pass one another over a century ago largely uninvolved with the other's existence. That's why Higgins' note-taking attracts her suspicion, and from that point on their mutual attraction — wholly unconventional and labored — is sealed.

Burns effects a capable partnership with David Schmittou as Higgins, who establishes the characterization indelibly in his first song, "Why Can't the English," then his ode to misogyny, "I'm an Ordinary Man." Despite a snobbish aversion to lower-class dialects and colloquialisms, he is scientifically fascinated by them. The painstaking effort to pull Eliza out of her milieu into the upper class through a focus on elocution and etiquette speaks to Shaw's interest in attacking the English class system as he found it in the Edwardian era. In the musical, it's all summed up in the song "The Rain in Spain," delightfully staged here.

What Lerner and Loewe accomplished in "My Fair Lady" was to take the somewhat bloodless quality of Higgins' social engineering and give it a tinge of romance. The ending, though I overheard it judged unsatisfactory by one patron leaving the theater Saturday, deftly compromises between Higgins' dismissive Q.E.D. at the experiment's conclusion and the charismatic pull of the creature he has fashioned and is inclined to take exclusive credit for. But he finally recognizes the raw material he had to work with contributed conclusively to the experiment's success.

This Eliza is fully his equal in pluck and self-assertion. Burns' singing of "Without You" late in the second act is the perfect set-up for Schmittou's expression of Higgins' second thoughts in a wistfully sung "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face." Burns had established vocally the vigor of her characterization with "Show Me," her demand of suitor Freddy Eynsford-Hill, and in two earlier versions of Eliza's "revenge aria," "Just You Wait."  If only the chemistry between Burns and Herb Porter as Freddy had been been more catalytic, the odd Freddy-Eliza-Higgins triangle would have been perfectly proportioned. Porter sang "On the Street Where You Live" with plenty of feeling, but otherwise Freddy's interaction with Eliza had little magic.

Newly wealthy Alfred P. Doolittle (Eddie Curry) urges his friends to get him to the church on time.
As fellow linguist Colonel Pickering, Mark Goetzinger contributed a genial, laid-back counterweight to Higgins' single-minded severity. Kelsee B. Hankins as Mrs. Pearce displayed the needed stabilizing influence on Higgins' transformational household.

Ron Morgan's choreography made something extra special of the reprise of "With a Little Bit of Luck," a number properly centered upon Curry's broadly played, eye-popping portrayal of Eliza's father, the suitably surnamed Doolittle. "Get Me to the Church on Time" likewise put the old rascal at center stage, though the tune lies too low for Curry to handle every phrase comfortably. Production values were high and sustained, however.

The ingenuity of Michael Layton's set design was mostly lavished upon Higgins' study. Other settings begged for more exercise of audience imagination, especially the pillars on fabric (sometimes together, sometimes separated) intended to represent the exterior of Covent Garden. What B&B manages quickly in the way of set changes on its cozy stage is nonetheless worth kudos.

Ryan Koharchik's lighting design was particularly apt for the dramatically ambiguous final scene. Follow spots unfailingly guided attention during the ensemble numbers. In addition to the display of imagination that went into outfitting Eliza, Jimm Halliday understandably allowed his costuming notions to run riot in the scene at Ascot, an English institution whose real-life splendor has made posh, attention-getting attire almost as important as the horse race.


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