By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Professor Henry Higgins, the bossy, tweedy phonetics expert in My Fair Lady, boasts that he can tell any man's place of birth and social class from listening to his accent. Tortured vowels? Low-born Cockney. Nasal consonants? Eton and Oxford. So what might the good professor make of the many attempts at British speech in three productions currently crowding the boards at the Arts District Theater, WaterTower Theatre and Theatre Quorum's latest at the Bath House Cultural Center?
Oddly, it's Dallas Theater Center's scaled-down version of the Lerner and Loewe musical, the final show to play the big barn space in the Arts District, that seems to have the toughest time with the mother tongue. Directed by Richard Hamburger, this My Fair Lady(reviewed at a preview) transfers here with the same actors from a run in Portland, Maine.
Editing the huge cast to just 10, six playing multiple roles, means an even greater emphasis on the four leads: Higgins (the dashing Martin Kildare, doing a bloody good job avoiding most of Rex Harrison's mannerisms); Eliza Doolittle (Sherry Boone), the Cockney flower seller who submits to Higgins' extreme accent makeover; Eliza's puckish father, Alfred P. Doolittle (James Brennan); and Colonel Pickering (David Coffee), Higgins' blustery upper-class accomplice. The men mostly do all right, particularly Brennan as the scruffy but lovable dustman-turned-orator Alfred. Brennan not only steals the show with his music hall-style, high-stepping versions of "Get Me to the Church on Time" and "With a Little Bit o' Luck," he's such a believable grifter he could get away with picking the pockets of patrons in the first few rows (they'd love him for it if he did).
It's Eliza that's the problem. Remember Carol Burnett's fractured English twang in the movie Noises Off? Or Dick Van Dyke's wandering East Ender-ese as the chimney sweep in Mary Poppins? Those have nothing on Sherry Boone's deranged Cockney cackle. By George, she never gets it. Not for a moment. Not when she's talking and especially not when she opens her throat to let loose with an operatic voice no Eliza should possess. The girl's supposed to be a "guttersnipe" hawking violets outside Covent Garden Opera House, not a classically trained diva auditioning to play Aidainside.
Listening to Boone trilling "Woooodin eeet beee loverlaaaay" as she longs for a room somewhere only serves to remind how wonderful Julie Andrews and Audrey Hepburn were in the role (the latter miming to the singing voice of Marni Nixon for the movie, but still). Eliza, one of the great Cinderellas of American musical theater, must have the Cockney thing down. It's crucial. The actress who plays her needs comic dexterity and a big singing voice, but also the ability to make that gradual transition from bleating guttersnipe to princess manque. She must seem at least a little bit fragile, too, so that Higgins' mistreatment of her late in the show really stings. Boone can do the low comedy--she bugs out her eyes and stretches her mouth so wide she could swallow her own ears--but she can't carry off the Cockney, and she makes too muscular a princess.
There's another aspect to this Fair Ladythat's hard to criticize but obvious to everyone in the house. Boone is black. It might not matter so much having a black Eliza if the other nine actors onstage with her weren't all white, or if the staging somehow acknowledged the difference. Colorblind casting has its pluses, but in this case it also requires extra work on the part of the audience. Now we wonder if there were other reasons, racial ones, why randy old Alfred didn't marry Eliza's mother. And why aren't there any other black flower girls on London streets? When Higgins blasts Eliza for being slow to learn during the "Rain in Spain" sequence, now he's not just a raving misogynist, he's a big old bigot, too. Lerner and Loewe, not to mention George Bernard Shaw (whose Pygmalion inspired the musical), never imagined a black Eliza, and imposing one on them, and us, seems like distracting theatrical gimmickry.
All other gimmicks, however, have been trimmed away for this "chamber production" of My Fair Lady. Instead of an orchestra, two Steinways, impressively played by Jeff Landon and Christopher Schindler, hammer out the familiar score. John Coyne's soaring scenic design (three tiers of Edwardian theater boxes) serves for all settings.
With such a small cast, the stage does look a bit underpopulated. The actors do yeomen's work playing all those supporting parts, but in the "Ascot Gavotte" and the big fancy ball scene, having so few bodies on view gives the impression that not quite enough guests have RSVP'd for the event.
Alongside McCracken in Matthew Barber's adaptation of the 1922 novel by Elizabeth von Arnim (more familiar to many from its 1992 film version) are three younger actresses whose delicate acting outshines their linguistic skills. What's a dropped vowel or two when they sweep you up in this spellbinding story of four very different English ladies learning to speak their minds and open their hearts during a month's holiday in an Italian villa?