Moonlight Stage Productions revives the Lerner & Lowe classic My Fair Lady for a 21st-century audience with the one element that’s been mostly missing since its 1956 Broadway debut—sex appeal—and the result is a My Fair Lady that is not only every bit as captivating as the best of the past century, its Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle could give the hottest Hollywood romcom stars a run for their money any day.
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, particularly under the inspired direction of Moonlight Stage Productions artistic director Steven Glaudini.
Fresh from his stellar singing-acting turn as Mr. Banks in Mary Poppins, Glaudini directs Moonlight’s My Fair Lady with an abundance of flair along with a keen sense of both the Shaw original and its Lerner & Lowe adaptation, as well as an understanding that for My Fair Lady to work in the 21st century, it must convince audiences that Eliza Doolittle is every bit Henry Higgins’ equal. (By merely changing stage directions, Glaudini ends this My Fair Lady on an egalitarian note it has rarely had before.)
As for the pivotal matter of casting My Fair Lady’s two leads for today’s musical theater audiences, here too Glaudini hits a bull’s-eye.
Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews (or Audrey Hepburn if you prefer) may well have been the perfect Henry and Eliza back in the 1950s/1960s, but it’s unlikely that many theater or moviegoers entertained thoughts that either one had the hots for the other in anything but an intellectual way.
Also, though Harrison may well have been the “definitive Henry Higgins” way back when, he was already in his mid-fifties when the movie came out and more character actor than romantic leading man. (If you don’t believe me, try imagining your favorite Colin Firth/Hugh Grant romcom with a 55-year-old Rex Harrison opposite a 20something Keira, Julia, Sandra, or Scarlett.)
That’s why the casting of Hank Stratton proves a particularly brilliant choice. Imagine Henry Higgins as played by a 40ish Cary Grant (or Firth or Hugh Grant at that age) and you’ll get some idea of the suave, sophisticated sex appeal the Broadway/TV vet brings to the role. Factor in acting expertise honed at London’s Academy Of Music And Dramatic Arts and you’ve got a handsome, hunky Henry for the New Millennium.
And then there’s Hilary Maiberger, currently on a brief hiatus from the soon-to-be International Tour of Disney’s Beauty & The Beast, whom I described earlier this year as “pure perfection as Belle, from her radiant smile to her glorious soprano to some powerful acting chops.” Maiberger is even better as Eliza and for the very same reasons, and such a fine, natural actress that she could rock as Pygmalion’s Eliza without singing a note.
Put the photogenic twosome opposite each other and, simply put, you might have seen My Fair Lady before, but never with the romantic/sexual sparks that ignite between these two radiant stars.
Jamie Torcellini’s Alfred P. Doolittle is as scene-stealing as the best Alfies who’ve preceded him … with an added plus. This man can dance his bloomin’ arse off, and does, thanks to choreographer Carlos Mendoza, who keeps him front and center in both “With A Little Bit Of Luck” and “Get Me To The Church On Time.”
Jim Chovick provides expert support as Colonel Pickering, Kathy Brombacher quietly owns each of Mrs. Higgins’ two scenes, Susan E.V. Boland is a nifty Mrs. Pearce, and Nick Adorno could not make for a dreamier Freddy. (How many actors do you know who can go from Danny Zuko to Freddy Eynsford-Hill in a matter of two weeks?)
My Fair Lady may not offer its ensemble players anywhere near the number of plum acting assignments they’d get in Legally Blonde, The Producers, The Drowsy Chaperone, or The Full Monty, but with Mendoza choreographing with abundant verve (plus umpteen costume changes—from Covent Garden denizens to Ascot swells and back again), the My Fair Lady chorus is kept busy indeed, albeit relatively incognito.
Ensembles don’t get much better than My Fair Lady’s at Moonlight, proof of which can be found in the long list of leading and major featured roles on the résumés of Jason Bailly (Servant), Carlin Castellano (Servant, Flower Girl), Devin Collins (Servant, Charles), Crystal Davidson (Mrs. Eynsford-Hill), Mary Allison Dunsmore, Hanz Enyeart (Servant), Ashlee Espinosa (Lady Boxington), Johnny Fletcher (Harry), assistant to the choreographer Casey Garritano (Busker), Joshua Taylor Hamilton (Lord Boxington, Quartet), Eric Hellmers (Policeman, Quartet), April Jo Henry (Busker), Ted Leib (George), Lauren Long, Matthew Malecki (Quartet), Amy M. McDowell (Mrs. Hopkins), Jini Scoville (Servant), Tara Shoemaker (Busker), Amber-Sky Skipps, Eric von Metzke (Jamie), Quinton Walker (Quartet), and Erica Marie Weisz (Servant, Mrs. Higgins’ Maid), with special snaps for Hamilton, Hellmers, Malecki, and Walker’s four-part harmonies and Garritano, Henry, and Shoemaker’s expert Busker footwork.
With musical director Elan McMahan conducting a Broadway-caliber/size pit orchestra and sound designer Chris Luessmann providing a crystal-clear mix of vocals and instrumentals, this My Fair Lady couldn’t sound any better, nor could it look any spiffier thanks to The Music Theatre Of Wichita’s all-around splendid rental-package of costumes and sets as lit with accustomed panache by Jean-Yves Tessier, costumes coordinated by Roslyn Lehman, Renetta Lloyd, and Carlotta Malone.
Debbie Luce is stage manager.
Like the best of Golden-Era Broadway Musicals (Oklahoma!, Kiss Me Kate, South Pacific, Guys And Dolls, West Side Story, and The Music Man, to name just half-a-dozen), My Fair Lady offers contemporary musical theater creative teams a crash course in How To Write A Hit, the results of which can be seen in this century’s Wicked, Billy Elliot The Musical, The Book Of Mormon, Thoroughly Modern Millie, and many more.
With its sublime fusion of book, music, lyrics, and choreography, My Fair Lady remains unsurpassed to this day in musical theater brilliance. And with sex appeal thrown in for good measure at Moonlight, this My Fair Lady is as “loverly” as they get.
Moonlight Amphitheatre, 1200 Vale Terrace Drive, Vista.
August 16, 2014
Photos: Ken Jacques