Tag Archives: Catherine Zuber

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.

More Empathy for a Barbaric Monarch in the Touring “King and I”

Review: The King and I

Laura Michelle Kelly, Baylen Thomas and Graham Montgomery in Rodgers & Hammerstein's The King and I. Photo by Matthew Murphy

By: Perry Tannenbaum

When I saw The King and I presented on a thrust stage at the Stratford Festival of Canada in the summer of 2003, I struggled for superlatives, convinced that this was the best production of the Rodgers & Hammerstein classic that I’d ever see. While the Asian spectacle and the beloved R&H hit parade were given their due, both were subordinated under Susan Schulman’s direction to the conviction that this is a theatre classic, presented on a thrust stage at Stratford’s marvelous Festival Theatre.

Though I heard wonderful things about the recent Lincoln Center production at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre – another thrust stage – I was reluctant to risk disappointment in comparing Bartlett Sher’s direction to Schulman’s. Well, the touring version that has just touched down in Charlotte dispels my doubts. Leaning more toward spectacle and theatricality, unafraid of a cliché or two, Sher’s King and I took me by surprise with its emotional power.

Wonders begin early, with the prow of a large ship sailing onto the stage, surely astonishing when it docked at the Vivian Beaumont in New York and no less amazing as part of the touring production now at Belk Theater. A few minutes later, when Anna Leonowens and her young son Louis debark in Bangkok for their adventures in the royal palace of Siam, we realize that getting the ship off the stage gracefully is a feat that easily equals bringing it on. Doing it while simulating the bustle of Bangkok adds to the delight.

Laura Michelle Kelly as Anna and the Royal Children of Rodgers & Hammerstein's The King and I. Photo by Matthew Murphy

One of the enduring hallmarks of Hammerstein’s book is the culture clash between the starchy propriety of the British teacher, Anna, and the silky sensuality of the Siamese. Catherine Zuber resplendently represents the clash in her costume designs – whether it’s the eye-popping colors worn by the King’s wives and children or the frilly hoop skirts that give Anna her aura. Yet there’s a political undercurrent that widens the gulf: Anna hails from an empire ruled by a woman, Queen Victoria, while the King claims superiority over all his subjects and expects absolute submission from all his wives.

Laura Michelle Kelly and Jose Llana in Rodgers & Hammerstein's The King and I. Photo by Matthew Murphy

Constantly reminding him of his promise to house her outside the palace while she teaches his wives and children, Anna astounds the King with her uppity-ness and tenacity. Were it not for the efforts of the King’s chief wife, Lady Thiang, to hold things together, this doomed relationship would quickly disintegrate. Sher deftly underscores Thiang’s subterranean feminism, so Joan Almedilla’s “Something Wonderful,” usually sung as a desperate supplication, emphasizes Thiang’s nobility – easily the most emotionally shattering moment of the show.

Raw realism is at the heart of this appeal. You can guide him to self-fulfillment. I cannot.

The most dramatic moment occurs where the three main plotlines converge. Early on, Tuptim is presented to the King as a gift wife from the ruler of Burma – by Lun Tha, the Burmese emissary whom Tuptim actually loves. The third storyline, the King’s attempt to impress British officials and debunk reports that he is a barbarian, propels much of the action, elevating Anna’s usefulness to the King and hatching the famed “Small House of Uncle Thomas” play-within-the-play.

After this triumphant presentation, Tuptim is caught trying to run away with Lun Tha, and we get the most forceful denouement I’ve ever seen in any production of this musical. When chief minister Kralahome (a wonderfully stolid Brian Rivera) tells Anna, “You have destroyed the King,” we can believe it.

Jose Llana is stern and imperious enough as the King of Siam when he needs to be, but he infuses more hearty mischief into navigating his difficulties with Anna, adding to the notion that, yes, she could be a little more indulgent and understanding. Complementing that portrayal, Laura Michelle Kelly never stints on Anna’s primness, firmly distancing herself from intimacy and sexuality until the moments when the charming rapprochement between the schoolmarm and the King reach peak temperature in “Shall We Dance?”

Kelly’s “Hello, Young Lovers” reads as a matronly approval of love from someone who has renounced it for herself, so it’s delicious to discover that old friend Sir Edward Ramsey – a veddy British Baylen Thomas – perceives this renunciation so much more readily than the King. Deflecting the question of whether the King is a blindly driven barbarian in his lusts, Hammerstein skirted the tender issue of whether the Siamese monarch ever took advantage of Tuptim.

The cast of Rodgers & Hammerstein's The King and I. Photo by Matthew Murphy_edited-1That opens a path for Manna Nichols to sing her solos and duets as Tuptim with liberated strength, expanding upon the intelligence that was always hers when she presided over the “Uncle Thomas” ballet. Kavin Panmeechao adjusts beautifully as Lun Tha in the duets, not quite as regal as his lover but admirable in his steadfastness.

All the silky cutesiness of the small fry is retained in “The March of Siamese Children,” but the two prime youths both count as the story unfolds. Each in his own fashion, Graham Montgomery as Louis Leonowens and Anthony Chan as Prince Chulalongkorn, the heir to the throne, is modeling the aristocratic discipline we expect of a first-born. More than Montgomery, Chan gets to model the realization that our parents aren’t perfect – and that we must move on from there.

The lessons are more meaningful for the Prince, who is the last of Anna’s students to show his appreciation for the very best in her, her maternal love. It’s a key reason why this edition of The King and I ends up feeling so warm and satisfying when all the fundamental disagreements between the title characters have played out and the Prince sets forth on a new path.