My Fair Lady

Paper Mill Playhouse, NJ - June 2002

Reviewed by John Kenrick

There are moments during Paper Mill's lavish new production of My Fair Lady when I was reminded what it feels like to be in the presence of the greatest musical ever written.

That's right – the greatest. As far as I'm concerned, no other show offers such a ravishing abundance of wit, melody, and sheer theatrical genius. When you place this material in the hands of a gifted cast and imaginative designers, magic happens. George Bernard Shaw's comic play Pygmalion, an offbeat tale of a phonetics professor who turns a cockney flower girl into a well-spoken lady, has plenty of socially relevant humor but very little emotion. It took Alan Jay Lerner and composer Frederick Loewe to unleash the heart and soul of these characters. From its legendary first night in 1957, My Fair Lady has been winning the hearts of audiences all over the world. In any language or location, this is a bona fide masterpiece.

But it's a funny thing with masterpieces – every contemporary director seems determined to "improve" them. The uncut My Fair Lady runs three hours and ten minutes, and the good folks at Paper Mill have succumbed to the ill-advised but popular notion that shorter is better. In cutting twenty minutes from this production, they have cost the show two scenes, one full song ("A Hymn to Him"), most of the overture, and much of its structural integrity. They have also hacked the final scene off of Act One and turned it into the opening of Act Two.

The results are still entertaining, but I do wish Paper Mill's management had warned us they were re-thinking and abridging the show. If it was so important to get the curtain down before 11PM, they should have left My Fair Lady to others and revived something shorter. Paper Mill's 1993 production made some adjustments but left "Hymn to Him" intact. This time around, audiences get some wonderful performances, ravishing costumes and at least one gorgeous set, but they are given only most of My Fair Lady, not all of it.

Why did Tams-Witmark agree to so many needless cuts and alterations? Have they no respect for this show? If anyone in the Lerner and Loewe estates still cares, wake up! Your licensing agent is clearly NOT protecting your legacy. I'm not suggesting that My Fair Lady is sacred scripture. As the current London revival proves, a fresh approach and a bit of judicious editing can work wonders, but how much of MFL can you slice away and still claim that you are doing the show the authors meant for us to see?

The usually dependable designer Michael Anania's sets are a uneven hodgepodge. His conception of Higgins' study is a sumptuous explosion of Edwardian elegance ' enough pale wood, Tiffany glass, and plush brown leather to warm the heart of Whistler himself. But in order to pull off this eye-filler, he has seriously skimped elsewhere. The ballroom looks like a chintzy afterthought (three drop mirrors and two standing candelabras?), and the opening at Covent Garden is downright wrong. The script specifically calls for the columns of St. Paul's Chapel, but this production goes moves our perspective over to the front of the Opera House – a convenient excuse to showcase some eye-popping gowns, but yet another revision that My Fair Lady did not need. One might not mind if the opera house set was not so unattractive.

On a happier note, Gregory A. Poplyk's costumes are the first I have seen that come anywhere near the visual wallop of Cecil Beaton's classic originals. His designs for the hilarious "Ascot Gavotte" sequence are a visual triumph. Eliza's all-important ball gown is an Edwardian fantasia of white satin and draped rhinestones, and I found myself wondering how I could get my hands on Higgins' handsome wardrobe.

At intermission, more than a few audience members were audibly wondering how they could get their hands on Paper Mill's Henry Higgins, the handsome Paul Shoeffler. (Tough luck kids – he's married!) He clearly has a blast, his mellifluous voice taking us on a merry roller coaster ride through every speech and patter song. (Well, every song except the missing "Hymn to Him" . . . but I digress.) He also has a flawless accent, and displays a gift for mimicry that fits the character perfectly. Glory Crampton makes Eliza's tricky transformation believable, and her soaring soprano made "I Could Have Danced All Night" a showstopper. It is absurd that writers and producers on the other side of the Hudson have still not come up with a star role for this gifted performer.

Ed Dixon gives a joyous, full-bodied performance as Doolittle, so damn funny and original that the upcoming Broadway revival would do well to keep him in mind. The same holds for the incomparable George S. Irving, who is easily the best Colonel Pickering I have ever seen. It is a perfect joy to see and hear this Tony-winning Broadway veteran as he makes every comic moment count. (Well, every moment except the missing telephone scene in Act Two . . . but I digress yet again.) Phyllis Sommerville makes a winning Mrs. Higgins, and Max Von Essen handles Freddy Eynsford-Hill with appropriate naive charm.

This production marks the end of Robert Johanson's 21-year tenure as Paper Mill's artistic director. His passion for musical theater has helped make this company one of the leading regional theaters in the country. While I strongly disapprove of the liberties he took with My Fair Lady, I certainly applaud the creativity he brought to it – as he did to so many productions over the years. Certain details stand out here, like the appearance of Oscar Wilde and "Bosie" in the ensemble scenes, or the clever re-thinking of the play's final moments. (I won't ruin it for you, but "them slippers" help to make this an ending that is more likely to satisfy 21st Century audiences.) Johanson's staging borrows a a few visual gags from the film ' and almost falls apart during the Act Two garden scene, but I suspect that will improve during the course of the run.

Even in abridged form, My Fair Lady offers more theatrical glory than anything Broadway has seen this season. It's always a joy to meet up with Henry, Eliza and the gang. I just hope the planned Broadway revival lets us see and hear them unexpurgated. That would be truly "loverly."

(Just for the record, the glorious original orchestrations for My Fair Lady – which inexplicably get no credit in the Paper Mill program – are by Robert Russell Bennett and Philip J. Lang, with dance arrangements by Trude Rittman.)

This production ran thru July 21, 2002

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