Tag Archives: Bartlett Sher

Sher Tinkers With “My Fair Lady,” Recalibrating Its Perfections

Review: Lerner & Loewe’s My Fair Lady

By Perry Tannenbaum

My fair Lady

Ah, perfection! It’s what so many of us unthinkingly strive for. Yet achieving perfection, the pedestal Lerner & Loewe’s My Fair Lady perches upon in the eyes of so many, invites a whole set of calamities, chiefly complacency and inertia. Worshipers at the altar of perfection would understandably strive to replicate the voice of Julie Andrews and the grace of Audrey Hepburn in presenting Eliza Doolittle – or the sublimely calibrated gruffness of Rex Harrison in reviving Professor Henry Higgins.

Their perfection has seemed to add layers of tamper-proof portrayals to Frederick Loewe’s cavalcade of memorable melodies, Alan Jay Lerner’s concise and pungent lyrics, and the duo’s deft adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion. Over the decades since it premiered on Broadway in 1959, our concepts of the ideal Fair Lady have become the sound of the original cast album (a #1 best seller) and the lavish look of the Hollywood film (Oscar for Best Picture).

But what about the stage show? There we tend to be rather vague. If you’ve been following theatre in Charlotte for the past 30 years or so, seeing as many as half-a-dozen local revivals as I have, you dimly remember one or two of them. Last national Fair Lady tour to stop in Charlotte? Never happened before the current tour now playing at Ovens Auditorium.

Launched this past December, five months after it closed on Broadway, the acclaimed Lincoln Center Theater production directed by Bartlett Sher dares to mess with the perfect musical. You’ll most readily notice Sher’s ministrations in the final scene, where Eliza’s response to Higgins’ peremptory “Fetch me my slippers!” seems to draw a “did-that-really-happen?” reaction from the Professor. But Sher also makes a sumptuous meal of “The Servant’s Chorus,” a song that I could not remember hearing live before, an 84-second relic from the film soundtrack that was apparently shoehorned into the 1993 revival.

My fair Lady

The insertion of this interlude, between “Just You Wait” – with its gawky vowels and dropped aitches – and Liza’s breakthrough “Rain in Spain,” makes delicious dramatic sense, giving us some idea of the flower girl’s arduous toil to master proper English pronunciation and Higgins’ merciless prodding. A gaggle of servants scurries through a mammoth two-story house that Sher has tasked set designer Michael Yeargen to build in such grand fashion that it revolves, showing us three different rooms in Higgins’ home.

Extending Liza’s struggles into epic spectacle makes her sudden latenight “Rain in Spain” triumph that much more rewarding. The crowning point of the sequence, Liza’s exuberant “I Could Have Danced All Night” after Higgins and servants have wearily trudged off to sleep, had never moved me so much before, a true revelation.

But improving on perfection ran into technical difficulties on opening night. To clear the upstage wall for its subsequent rotations – and likely to ensure its stability – the two-story set must come forward a few feet toward the audience before it’s properly secured and ready to roll. Instead, there was a slight lurch before the mighty edifice stalled. True to the hallowed show-must-go-on spirit, Laird Mackintosh as Higgins launched into the scene with one of his butlers, only to be shut down by the crew. Houselights came up as the curtain came down, and we heard the dreaded announcement on the PA, which confirmed a problem rather than describing it.

The third stop on the new My Fair Lady tour had come to a dead stop. After a half-hour delay, I felt thankful that the snafu had occurred at the top of the scene so that the whole revelatory sequence was eventually delivered without interruption. Mackintosh as Professor Higgins and Shereen Ahmed as Eliza make a wonderful pair. Ahmed doesn’t have the #MeToo energy and cleverness attributed to Lauren Ambrose when she brought this production to Lincoln Center in 2018. She almost doesn’t need to with all the abrasiveness, conceit, and disregard that Mackintosh brings to Higgins’ misogynistic treatment of Eliza.

We feel like Eliza is being abused long before the Professor’s aborted physical attack on her, and Mackintosh never surrenders all the cruel edge of Lerner’s lyrics in “I’m an Ordinary Man” and “A Hymn to Him” to their comedy. Nor is there more potent testimony to Eliza’s triumph than Mackintosh’s chastened, broken rendition of “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face.” Sher manages to remind us in his nuanced staging that women are still mobilizing behind the cause of suffrage at the time the action is set in 1912. We can cut some slack, then, if Ahmed seems a little deferential towards Higgins’ erudition, wealth, and gender – and, in turn, we can cut Mackintosh some slack for his troglodyte arrogance.

Sher also judges keenly in giving us a more youthful Higgins, for Mackintosh can react to Ahmed emotionally as she wins his admiration, almost sweeping away thoughts of her desirability as a maidservant or private secretary. That youthful casting gives Ahmed more to be giddy about when Higgins shows her his first glimmer of approval and pride. In “I Could Have Danced All Night,” Ahmed’s whole body seems to awaken to undreamed-of possibilities that surpass the prospect of becoming a private secretary or a flower shop owner.

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Ahmed does sing superbly, showing steel and vitality in her bellicose songs, “Just You Wait,” “Show Me,” and “Without You.” Helped along by Catherine Zuber’s smashing costumes, Ahmed also transforms magnificently from the grubby Cockney we meet in the opening scene into a vision of regal elegance that credibly explodes Higgins’ wildest expectations of success for his phonetic experimentations – and his gentlemen’s bet with Colonel Pickering.

Pickering and Higgins’ patrician mom, whom you might expect to oppose Eliza, turn out to be her staunchest supporters. Sher doesn’t tamper with their traditional essences, bespeaking the good-heartedness of upper-crust Brits, getting zesty and stylish performances from Leslie Alexander as Mrs. Higgins and Kevin Pariseau as the Colonel.

My fair Lady

Yet when it comes to the young gentleman smitten by Eliza, Freddy Eynsford-Hill, Sher calls upon Sam Simahk to augment the chap’s dopiness and devotion. That allows for a broader comical take on Eliza’s gaucheries at the Ascot races in her society debut. And it equips Liza with a lovestruck, puppy dog valet throughout most of Act 2, reaffirming her new sheen. Simahk only slightly trims back the rhapsodic splendor of “On the Street Where You Live” in pulling off this alteration.

My fair Lady

Drunken, vulgar, and rascally, Adam Grupper as the irrepressible Alfred P. Doolittle now seems heaven-sent, purposed to make Higgins seem enlightened and evolved by comparison. Holding his hat respectfully in Higgins’ study as he sells his daughter’s virtue for five pounds sterling, or dancing the night away with barroom sluts the night before his wedding, Grupper is a quintessential scoundrel, lit up with earthy, peasant merriment. His “Get Me to the Church on Time” production number is even more extravagant than the pivotal “Servant’s Chorus,” with climactic funeral imagery in Christopher Gattelli’s choreography on loan from the Scrooge movie musical.

As Higgins proceeded afterwards to toy with thoughts of reconciliation and matrimony, I could see more clearly than ever before that he and Doolittle are kindred spirits. I could also appreciate more keenly the delicious irony that Higgins’ benevolent sponsorship of Doolittle’s welfare, which has a sequel beyond that five-pound note, is what lands Alfred P. in his matrimonial pickle.

But if you don’t like the ambiguous ending of My Fair Lady, you can take comfort in the fact that George Bernard Shaw didn’t write it. Unlike the 1938 screen version, the true source of Lerner’s adaptation, the GBS play ends with Higgins exclaiming, “Marry Freddy, ha!” A 14-page postscript incorporates Shaw’s prognostications about his vibrant protagonists’ futures.

Opera Carolina’s “Barber of Seville” Sharpens the Comedy

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Review : The Barber of Seville

By Perry Tannenbaum

Poor Beaumarchais. A crucial friend of the American Revolution, French playwright Pierre Beaumarchais’s great Figaro comedies have been both favored and scorned by history. Just two years after The Marriage of Figaro premiered in Paris, Mozart’s 1786 adaptation eclipsed the theater version, remaining one of opera’s supreme masterworks to this day. And the Rossini version of the first Figaro play, The Barber of Seville, has a been an operagoer’s favorite ever since its Rome premiere in 1816.

Hardly a month goes by without one of these operas being produced somewhere around the globe. The original Beaumarchais comedies? Not so much. They endure through the operas they inspired.

Rossini was the fifth or sixth composer to adapt The Barber, and undoubtedly the best, for the profusion of memorable melodies in this score has hardly been equaled by any other opera. But popularity can pay a price. Two hundred years after Barber’s triumphant premiere, there are indications that both producers and audiences are wearying of the longtime favorite.

Up in New York, director Bartlett Sher had the opera and the libretto by Cesare Sterbini sliced, diced, and freshly translated for a new family-friendly version at the Metropolitan Opera during the holidays last season. Obviously, the calculus included the notion that the hit parade packaged in a compressed Barber could serve as a gateway to other operas and/or Rossini, for the composer’s Lady of the Lake was among the other operas that I found in the Met’s rotation last December.

Yet there seemed to be some uneasiness from Sher about presenting the classic in the usual way. As a result, baritone Elliot Madore was more of an action hero as Figaro than a razor-stropping conniver, and tenor David Portillo was almost a purely romantic hero as the barber’s co-conspirator, Count Almaviva, further draining the comedy from the evening.

No such trimming, miscalculating, uneasiness, or distortion occurs in Opera Carolina’s current production at Belk Theater. Stage director Bernard Uzan, who directed a delicious Opera Carolina-Piedmont Opera co-production of Barber in 2002, both in Charlotte and Winston-Salem, helps the singers to wed Rossini’s music with Beaumarchais’s comedy even more delightfully this time around.

You can bet that OC general director James Meena, conducting the Charlotte Symphony, is also in on the comedy conspiracy, for his alertness with dynamics and tempo consistently sharpens Rossini’s musical joking. From the orchestra pit up to the stage, with its pitch-perfect scenery and costuming, everybody seems jazzed by the concept of this revival.

No, all the Rossini fatigue in Charlotte seems to be out in the hall, where empty seats gradually dominated the rear of the orchestra section on opening night. At intermission, I looked up at the top balcony, shocked to find that none of the seats up yonder had been sold. Ushers up there enjoying the show could have any seat they wished. Three performances shouldn’t satisfy audience hunger for an outstanding production like this, but unfortunately, hundreds have already missed out on the fun.unspecified

It starts with tenor Victor Ryan Robertson, who was so slick and rascally as Sportin’ Life earlier this year in Charleston at Spoleto Festival USA’s production of Porgy and Bess. Disguised as the student Lindoro, Robertson torches Count Almaviva’s lovesick “Ecco ridente in cielo” serenade in the opening scene. The strength of Robertson’s singing promises that he will be as noble and ardent as Portillo was in New York.

But to spirit his sweetheart Rosina away from the decrepit and perverted fingers of her guardian, Dr. Bartolo, Count Almaviva dons two disguises within his Lindoro disguise, first a drunken soldier to be quartered in Bartolo’s home and later a singing teacher to tutor Rosina. Aided by the zany handiwork of wig-and-makeup designer Martha Ruskai, Roberston’s comic stints far excel what I witnessed at the Met, actually upstaging our clever Figaro. In particular, the nasal whine of the tutor, compounded by the dopey look of his coke-bottle eyeglasses, is magnificent overkill if their intent is to calm the rabid jealousies of the vigilant Bartolo.

Of course, it’s Figaro who upstages Almaviva in the opening scene, and Hyung Yun registers a resounding triumph with the most familiar patter song in all opera, the “Largo al factotum.” Yun was not only up to the increasing speed of the aria, he refused to hide behind the language barrier, sounding like he was saying something rather than zipping through an advertising jingle. Sher’s impulse to turn the title character into an action hero was understandable given the tendency for him to devolve into a lovable clown, but Yun’s Figaro remains a clever and resourceful rogue.

No, Figaro doesn’t have to beg like a silly slave when Almaviva and Rosina delay their escape from Bartolo’s home late in Act 2, nor does he need to counsel haste and quiet to the lovers like a sensible big brother. Yun takes a neat middle way, preserving the comedy that Gilbert and Sullivan must have cherished (see the denouement in The Pirates of Penzance). I also appreciated how Yun held up his end of the “Fortunati affeti mei” duet with Rosina in Act 1, Scene 2, earnestly expressing his admiration for women’s aptitude for deceit without becoming – as we usually hear – a mere background drone.

With her crazy Queen of the Night range, soprano Kathryn Lewek was certainly worthy of all the admiration that came her way as Rosina, topping her own Op Carolina debut as Lucia di Lammermoor 18 months ago and topping what I saw and heard from mezzo Isabel Leonard in New York last December. In some respects, she even surpassed the scintillating work of mezzo Vivica Genaux when she sang Rosina here in 2002.

Not only did Lewek reach higher notes in her coloratura flights, she also conspired to deliver more comedy. From the moment she launched into the famed “Una voce poco fa,” proclaiming Rosina’s devilish tendencies, it was obvious the Lewek was capable of meeting the pyrotechnical demands of this showpiece. Uzan was clearly her accomplice in taking Rosina’s coloratura beyond showmanship.

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Early on, we get indications from Lewek of what would become deliciously explicit later on – when she and Lindoro, disguised as her tutor, are carrying on in the same room where the hoodwinked Bartolo is getting ready for his shave. Those coloratura flights aren’t merely the showy warblings of a songbird, they are manifestations of uncontrollable sensual delight, triggered each time Almaviva caresses Rosina’s arm. Lewek delivers these passages with sudden surges in volume to enhance the effect. Sensational and comically seductive at the same time.

Stephen Condy as Dr. Bartolo and Kevin Langan as Don Basilio turn in fine performances as the dupes of all this connivance. Bartolo is the dopier dupe, more often in the spotlight, but bass Langan upstages him musically with Basilio’s “La calumnia,” urging a vicious campaign of rumor to drive Almaviva out of town. Condy, a baritone of imposing pomposity, listens stolidly as Langan’s fulminations rise to a stormy peak. Then he responds with a simple no, rounding off a polished comedy gem.

Uzan sprinkles the staging with other comedy nuggets, making sure Basilio’s endless exit is milked as thoroughly in the middle of Act 2 as the lovers’ aborted escape is afterwards. More singular is the slow motion and stop motion that gets layered onto the chaotic ensemble that ends Act 1, built up to pandemonium from a hushed staccato. The same shtick worked well in the 2002 production that Uzan directed here in 2002, so why not bring it back?

After attending a Charlotte Symphony concert just eight days earlier, when I sat up in the grand tier, I found the orchestral sound comparatively muffled as Meena struck up the overture down in the pit. I’d already acclimated to the altered dynamics by the time the curtain rose on pre-dawn Seville. When Meena summoned the music that covers the transition from afternoon to midnight at Bartholo’s home midway into Act 2, it really carried the shocking snap and crackle of an unforeseen lightning storm.

Sure enough, Beaumarchais called for the sound of a terrible storm in the interval between Acts 3 and 4 of his original playscript, sparking more than two centuries of conjecture that he intended his work to be an opera all along. With its exceptional singing and mirth-making, I’d say the current Opera Carolina production of The Barber of Seville fulfills Rossini’s and Beaumarchais’s intentions in equal measure.

Searching for an Italian Iowan

Theatre Review: The Bridges of Madison County

Madison County

By Perry Tannenbaum

The problems with this show really began before the first note. I’ve never read The Bridges of Madison County nor seen the movie that was adapted from Robert James Waller’s bestseller. What I vaguely remembered was that it centered on an Iowa housewife who was beguiled by a charismatic photographer, and that Meryl Streep was that housewife romanced by Clint Eastwood in the movie.

But I never knew she was Italian. So when Elizabeth Stanley began to sing as Francesca in the touring version of the Broadway musical, I only intermittently understood a word that she was saying. None of those words, unfortunately, was Napoli. Albany, Cleveland, and Osceola, yes I understood those, but by then I’d missed the boat.

Even when I caught on to the idea that this Iowa housewife was Italian – and what the target accent was that I needed to decipher – it was of little use when Stanley sang. The James Robert Brown lyrics were hopelessly pureed even though the James Robert Brown music was quite lovely.

I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a touring Broadway show so thoroughly massacred by its leading lady.

On the other hand, Andrew Samonsky was all of the lanky dreamboat you could hope for as Robert, the easygoing National Geographic photographer who bounces around the globe with his camera and tripod, hunting down the perfect light and angle for every scenic subject. When Samonsky says Stanley is beautiful, you can momentarily believe it.

I’d seen Samonsky seven years ago as a moody, racist Lt. Cable in the Broadway revival of South Pacific, and I could see why director Bartlett Sher wanted him back. Now his hair has grown long, the mellow opposite of the tightly wound Cable. Even on Broadway, you rarely hear a voice of such astonishing clarity and power. No struggle at all to get to the core of Robert’s restless, yearning soul.

Noisy kids, snoopy neighbors, and a humdrum husband all circle around the vortex of the great Francesca-Robert passion, swelled to Broadway size in the Marsha Norman book but not really overstuffed. We don’t feel like we’re watching a big Broadway extravaganza at Knight Theater. Scenery by Michael Yeargan has the spare fantasy feel of the dream sequence from Oklahoma, and Brown’s orchestrations have a matching classic simplicity, thinning out at times to a lone piano or even a cello.

So for the music and the soulful Samonsky, the trip to Madison County may be worth it. But before you go, it would be wise to catch hold of Francesca’s lyrics on the cast recording. If your Spotify subscription allows you to punch the lyric tab, that’s the quickest way.