My Fair Lady with a cast of seventeen, minimal sets, and a two-piano orchestra is hardly the My Fair Lady you and I have grown up seeing, but Rubicon Theatre’s chamber adaptation of the Lerner & Lowe classic works mostly as well as (and in some ways better than) a more traditional production.
Adding another seven to the mix means that even big production numbers feel almost full-size with pretty much everyone but the show’s two leads playing both Cockney and Posh in song-and-dance sequences like “With A Little Bit Of Luck,” “Ascot Gavotte,” and “Get Me To The Church On Time.”
And lest we forget, this is My Fair Lady we are talking about here, a show so magical that upon its Broadway opening way back in the mid ‘50s, Brooks Atkinson of The New York Times called it “one of the best musicals of the century,” quite a proclamation for a century that still had forty-four years left to go, but one that has proven spot-on.
Does any musical produced between 1900 and 1999 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. It doesn’t get any wittier than that.
As for Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s songs, just try to make a list of the “greatest” (or even of the best known) of them and you basically need to list every single one: “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.”
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, and certainly not as directed by James O’Neill at the Rubicon.
Are a full orchestra and glorious Broadway-scale sets missed? I’d be lying if I said they aren’t, since who wouldn’t enjoy hearing Robert Russell Bennet and Philip J. Lang’s original orchestrations or seeing Covent Garden, Henry Higgins’ study, and Ascot rendered in all their finely-detailed glory?
Still, there’s something about seeing and hearing musical director Lloyd Cooper and second keyboardist Chris Kimbler tickling the ivories on either side of the grand staircase (the only element of scenic designer Thomas S. Giamario’s black-velvet curtain-backed set that is not a piece of movable furniture or prop) that makes this My Fair Lady feel almost as if it were being staged in the intimacy of someone’s living room.
Certainly, no audience has ever been closer to the actors than the Rubicon’s, removing any need to “play to the balcony” and allowing the cast to focus on the same subtle details one would expect were it Pygmalion unfolding on the Rubicon stage and not its musical adaptation.
O’Neill not only directs with finesse, he does so with 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, a fact made evident in his subtle tweaking of My Fair Lady’s potentially misogynistic final “Eliza, where the devil are my slippers?” scene.
Despite some line-stumbling, Joseph Fuqua makes for a perfectly marvelous Henry, a twinkle in the eye humanizing the man throughout, and not a trace of Rex Harrison to be seen or heard. (That the Rubicon regular is just young and handsome enough to make Higgins no old fogey is a bonus plus.)
I’ve never seen a more sublime Eliza than Kimberly Hessler, her exquisite performance more than fulfilling the promise she showed in The Most Happy Fella’ as a USC senior just two years back, her transformation from flower girl to lady as subtly believable as her soprano is crystalline.
Patrick De Santis plays marriage-phobic London dustman Alfred P. Doolittle with plenty of oomph de vivre. Rudolph Willrich combines sophistication and warmth as Higgins sidekick Coronel Pickering. Will Sevedge is as sweet and winning a Freddy as Freddys get, and boy oh boy can this tenor sing. Linda Kerns brings a crusty warmth to Mrs. Pearce. As for Henry’s mom, I’ve never seen an actress do more with Mrs. Higgins than the effervescent Susan Denaker, who gets the added bonus of doubling as Tottenham Court Cockney Mrs. Hopkins.
Supporting cast members make for not only an all-around triple-threat-tastic bunch of players, they do at least triple the work of the Original Broadway cast: Jahmaul Bakare (Busker, Cockney Quartet, Footman, Higgins’ Servant, Mrs. Higgins’ Maid), Lila Bassior (Flower Girl, Cockney, Higgins’ Servant, Lady Boxington, Mrs. Higgins’ Maid), Christopher Carothers (Busker, Cockney Quartet, Selsey Man, Jamie, Chauffeur), Michael Stone Forrest (Busker, Cockney Quartet, Hoxton Man, Harry, Lord Boxington), Jesse Graham (Busker, Cockney Quartet, Higgins’ Servant, Ascot Patron), Howard Leader (Bartender, Butler, Policeman), Carolanne Marano (Theatre Patron, Cockney, Higgins’ Servant, Ascot Patron), Jenaha McLearn (Flower Girl, Busker, Cockney, Higgins’ Servant, Ascot Patron), Amber Petty (Mrs. Eynsford-Hill, Cockney), and Jacqueline Elyse Rosenthal (Flower Girl, Cockney, Higgins’ Servant, Ascot Patron).
Marano doubles as choreographer, and delightfully so, giving her cast plenty of hoofing (and even some chorus-line kicks) to execute on a smaller-than usual stage, and just about everyone in this My Fair Lady does his or her My Fair Share of dancing.
Marcy Froelich’s costumes are not only gorgeous (I love the scarlet highlights added to the Ascot suits and gowns), they have been designed for lightning-quick changes as have hair stylist Tiffany Baker’s topnotch wigs. Giamario’s lighting design adds delicate shadings to his spare but effective set, one which has been dressed with attention to detail by properties designer T. Theresa Scarano. Jonathan Burke’s sound design is so good, you scarcely realize that cast vocals have been ever so slightly amped.
Rod Menzies scores points for his spot-on dialect coaching. Linda M. Tross is production stage manager and Jessie Vacchiano is assistant stage manager. Christina M. Burck is production manager. David King is technical director. Stephanie Coltrin is casting director.
With its sublime fusion of book, music, lyrics, and choreography, My Fair Lady remains unsurpassed to this day in musical theater brilliance. Even scaled down at the Rubicon, this contemporary classic soars.
Rubicon Theatre, 1006 E. Main Street, Ventura.
October 30, 2015
Photos: Jeanne Tanner