Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theatre celebrates its 200th production with a crowd-pleasing revival of the musical that started it all for the Claremont gem nearly thirty years ago, Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Lowe’s 1956 classic My Fair Lady.
Upon its Broadway opening way back in the mid ‘50s, Brooks Atkinson of The New York Times called My Fair Lady “one of the best musicals of the century,” quite a proclamation for a century that still had forty-four years left to go. Still, looking back these fifty-eight years later, it’s clear as crystal that even if the musical had opened in 1999, Atkinson’s rather bold statement would have been as spot-on as it was mid-century.
Does any musical of the past hundred years have a more perfect book? My Fair Lady’s, by Alan Jay Lerner, takes as its source George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, and much if not most of the dialog is Shaw’s. Does it get any wittier than that?
Then, there are the songs by Lerner and Frederick Loewe. “Why Can’t The English,” “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly,” “With A Little Bit of Luck,” “I’m An Ordinary Man,” “Just You Wait,” “The Rain in Spain,” “I Could Have Danced All Night,” “On The Street Where You Live,” “You Did It,” “Show Me,” “Get Me To The Church On Time,” “Why Can’t A Woman Be More Like A Man,” “Without You,” and “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face.” Just try to make a list of the “greatest” (or even of the best known) songs from My Fair Lady, and you basically need to list every single one of them.
Though Lerner and Lowe also created Brigadoon, Camelot, Gigi, and Paint Your Wagon, My Fair Lady is by far their crowning achievement, and not an iota dated since its Broadway debut nearly six decades ago ago.
Candlelight regular Douglas Austin directs with the assuredness of one who knows the source material backwards and forwards, having played Freddy “On The Street Where You Live” Eynsford-Hill in that very first Candlelight production.
Starring as Henry Higgins is last year’s Scenie-winning Musical Theater Performer/Director Of The Year John LaLonde, and a more inspired bit of casting I cannot imagine. LaLonde does indeed give us the pretentious fuddy-duddy George Bernard Shaw created for his 1912 classic Pygmalion, but with a twist. No over-the-hill character actor he, LaLonde’s matinee idol looks and matching vocal chops make Candlelight’s ‘Enry ‘Iggins the kind of man who might turn any flower girl’s head and heart were he to undergo a personality adjustment, something that Jessica Bernard’s exquisite Eliza seems entirely capable of engineering. (I’d be tempted to call Henry Higgins LaLonde’s very best work had it not followed his September star turn in Sweeney Todd.)
LaLonde and Bernard (whose voice is the next best thing to having Julie Andrews circa 1956 on the Candlelight stage) have a palpable chemistry that wouldn’t be nearly so (let’s be frank) hot had Higgins been cast as a sexa-or-septuagenarian, and the duo’s inspired playing of the musical’s final, nearly dialog-less minute or so will take your breath away.
Like LaLonde, the radiant Bernard simply couldn’t be more loverly, and what a treat to see the Southland favorite in the great big leading role she deserves following her stellar featured turns in Moonlight Stage’s Legally Blonde, Sweeney Todd, and Young Frankenstein. Bernard nails Eliza from her first caterwauling entrance in Covent Garden to her fiery “Just You Wait” to her exhilarating “The Rain In Spain” to her transcendent “I Could Have Danced All Night” … and beyond.
The ever effervescent Neil Dale may be a couple decades too young to play Eliza’s dad Alfred P. Doolittle, but the Liverpool native sings, acts, and dances the role of the marriage-phobic London dustman with abundant panache and joie de vivre.
Corky Loupé does terrific supporting work as Higgins sidekick Colonel Pickering, Kristofer Sundquist’s adoring puppy dog of a Freddy sings a tuneful “On The Street Where You Live” and provides Bernard’s Eliza a delightful foil in “Show Me,” Candace Elder does a bubbly turn as Mrs. Pearce, and Diane David makes for a wise and witty Mrs. Higgins. (This is one My Fair Lady where you can actually believe that Henry’s mum could still be among the living.)
Supporting the above in numerous “tracks” is an all-around fine ensemble, singing quite gorgeously under Austin’s assured musical direction and performing Hector Guerrero’s lively choreography with verve. They are Rachel Burkert (Higgins Maid, Cockney, Ascot Patron), Kim Eberhardt (Mrs. Eynsford-Hill, Cockney), Patricia Eredia (Higgins Maid, Cockney, Ascot Patron), Kevin Gasio (Cockney Quartet, Butler, Ascott Patron), Janell Henry (Mrs. Hopkins, Mrs. Higgins Maid, Ascot Patron), Paul Lange (Selsey Man, Policeman, Ascot Patron), Andrew Orbison (Cockney Quartet, Footman, Ascot Patron), Bryan Overmyer (Jamie, Busker, Cockney Quartet, Ascot Patron), Jessie Parmelee (Busker, Flower Girl, Ascot Patron), Beda Spindola (Higgins Maid, Cockney, Ascot Patron), and Josh Taylor (Harry, Busker, Cockney Quartet, Ascot Patron).
Special mention should be made of Gasio, Orbison, Overmyer, and Taylor’s four-part harmonies in “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly,” and Overmyer and Taylor’s dance backup to Dale in “With A Little Bit Of Luck” and “Get Me To The Church On Time.”
While the uncredited set for Higgins’ study is a particularly elegant, detailed one, the rest of the scenes are played before painted scrims. Costumes by The Theatre Company (and coordinated by Jenny Senior) are first-rate, from Covent Garden Cockney-wear to the fancy black-and-white gowns worn for the “Ascot Gavotte,” though I must confess to having been underwhelmed by Eliza’s rather too shapeless Embassy Ball gown. Mary Warde’s wigs have a period-appropriate look, if at times a tad larger than life. As always, Steve Giltner of SteveGDesign lights the Candlelight stage to perfection. Cast members perform to prerecorded tracks which sound almost but not quite live.
Ashley Wilkinson gets deserved program credit for her dialect coaching. Logan Grosjean is stage manager and Orlando Montes technical director.
Executive chef Juan Alvarado and sous chef Maria Sandoval’s serve up Candlelight’s invariably scrumptious cuisine. Kudos as always to Candlelight Pavilion owner/producer Ben D. Bollinger, general manager/vice president Michael Bollinger, acting producer Mindy Teuber, production manager Dale, and especially to artistic director LaLonde.
Though it’s been said before, it bears repeating as Candlelight Dinner Theatre heads towards its 201st production, next month’s Crazy For You, that no other Southland establishment comes close to Candlelight’s year-round musical theater season, six performances a week, fifty-two weeks a year. Not only is this a godsend to musical theater performers like those gracing the My Fair Lady stage, it is the best possible theatrical banquet for musical theater lovers like you and I.
Candlelight Pavilion, 455 W. Foothill Blvd., Claremont. Through March 16.
February 8, 2014
Photos: Kirklyn Robinson