The bigger the show, the smaller the revival. Vintage American musicals keep getting make-unders on Broadway. The trend began with 2005's Sweeney Todd, a shoestring affair imported from London that forced the cast to double as the onstage "orchestra." Star Patti Lupone awkwardly blew into a tuba. And thus diminished, Stephen Sondheim's Grand Guignol opera became The Fantasticks with butcher knives.
Stripped-down versions of three more Sondheim shows—Company, Follies and the still-running A Little Night Music—followed. And now there's the un-glam restaging of Jerry Herman's La Cage aux Folles, which joined a Broadway season in which the revival of West Side Story replaced half its string section with an electronic synthesizer called a "Fauxharmonic."
So the only place now to see a classic American musical in all its intended splendor—30-member cast, 38-piece orchestra, massive scenery, elegant costumes—is Irving, Texas. Lyric Stage, in its 17th season at the Irving Arts Center, produces American musical theater, and only American musical theater, the old-fashioned way, no scrimping on violins, no cutting dream ballets for time. Lyric founder and artistic director Steven Jones, who defected from dentistry to nonprofit theater producing, believes in restoring shows like Carousel and The King & I to their original proportions. How he manages to do it time and again on fewer dollars than Dallas Theater Center spends on costumes for a musical is not just admirable but miraculous.
Now Jones and company have done it to perfection with My Fair Lady, which looks and sounds like a million bucks. Directed and choreographed by Len Pfluger, it's Lyric's finest yet—and that's saying a lot, given last season's spectacular Funny Girl and the previous year's full-out Carousel.
Lerner and Loewe created their witty adaptation of literature's funniest makeover story, George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion, in 1956. The musical follows a Cockney ugly duckling as she becomes a well-spoken swan over three waltzy hours of lush music and underplayed sexual tension with her teacher, the snooty Henry Higgins (Brent Alford).
Lyric's ducky Eliza Doolittle, Kimberly Whalen (Maria in Lyric's West Side Story and Clara in Theatre Three's A Light in the Piazza), loses her guttural vowels in all that phonetics training with Higgins, but she doesn't give up the tough streak that's kept her safe in Covent Garden Market all those nights. He, of course, loses his heart to his finest creation.
Comically and vocally, this Henry and Eliza are ideally matched. She's ridiculously pretty and sings like the young Julie Andrews, trilling R's and gliding dreamily down from the high note. He's sexy-tweedy, manly without seeming brutish. When this Henry Higgins blusters about the pitfalls of letting a woman in his life or why the world would be better if women were more like men—a tune cheekily titled "A Hymn to Him"—you suspect he's pretending his misogyny. After Eliza leaves him, this heartsick Henry lets his guard down in "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face," the show's great talk-sung love song. He's the one who's been made over.
At last, a Henry and Eliza you can imagine doing it on the parlor chaise.
Lyric's My Fair Lady is cast with terrific flair, all from the local talent pool. Sonny Franks as Eliza's dad, philosophical dustman Alfred P. Doolittle, looks and sings like the Broadway original, Stanley Holloway. Helluva dancer, too. Gary Taggart plays Colonel Pickering with appealing starch and a fatherly twinkle. As unsuccessful suitor Freddy Eynsford-Hill, Daniel R. Johnson, last seen at Lyric in skintight jeans in Bye Bye Birdie, makes what is usually a wimpy end to the first act—solo ballad "On the Street Where You Live"—into a soaring, heartbreaking showstopper.
They don't make shows like My Fair Lady anymore and nobody does them with as much love, respect and enthusiasm for how they should be done as Lyric Stage.
The 10-member DFW Critics Forum meets every September to decide whom to honor for the best work on North Texas stages. This year's confab was unusually congenial, with fewer loud arguments and forks to the carotid than previous luncheons. Everyone agreed pretty quickly on this year's standouts among the more than 200 professional and semi-professional shows reviewed:
Outstanding actors: Regan Adair, for his season of work in reasons to be pretty and Fat Pig (Dallas Theater Center) and Something Intangible (Circle Theatre); Jonathan Brooks, Port Twilight (Undermain); Jeremy Dumont, Funny Girl (Lyric Stage); Chamblee Ferguson, A Midsummer Night's Dream (DTC); Joey Folsom, for roles in Danny and the Deep Blue Sea (Broken Gears Project Theatre), Talk Radio and subUrbia (both Upstart Productions); Sean Hennigan, Death of a Salesman and A Christmas Carol (DTC); Chuck Huber, Sherlock Holmes in the Crucifer of Blood (Theatre Three); Elias Taylorson, Talk Radio (Upstart); and Steven Walters for The Beauty Plays (DTC).
Outstanding actresses: Pam Dougherty, The Full Monty and Grey Gardens (WaterTower Theatre); Kristin Dausch, Funny Girl (Lyric); Marianne Galloway, Rabbit Hole (Contemporary Theatre of Dallas); Liz Mikel, Black Pearl Sings! (WaterTower) and A Midsummer Night's Dream (DTC); Trisha Miller, Much Ado about Nothing (Trinity Shakespeare); Jennifer Powers and Cara Statham Serber, It's a Bird...It's a Plane...It's Superman! (DTC); Diana Sheehan, Grey Gardens (WaterTower); Sally Nystuen Vahle, Death of a Salesman (DTC); Wendy Welch, Forbidden Broadway's Greatest Hits (Uptown Players).
Best acting ensembles: Undermain's Endgame; Upstart's subUrbia; Circle Theatre's Bach at Leipzig and Opus.
Directors: Robin Armstrong, Bach at Leipzig (Circle); Andy Baldwin, Musical Comedy Murders of 1940 (Theatre Arlington); Sharon Benge, Master Harold...and the Boys (African American Repertory Theater); Cheryl Denson, Funny Girl (Lyric); Katherine Owens, Port Twilight (Undermain); Tom Parr IV, Alice in Wonderland (White Rock Pollution); Alan Shorter, Opus (Circle); Stan Wojewodski Jr., Endgame (Undermain).
Best new plays or musicals: The Road to Qatar! by Stephen Cole and David Krane (premiered at Lyric Stage); Long Way Go Down by Zayd Dohrn (premiered at Kitchen Dog Theater); Crystal City 1969 by David Lozano and Raul Trevino (premiered at Cara Mia Theatre Co.).
Creative contributions: Design teams of Port Twilight (Undermain) and Sherlock Holmes in the Crucifer of Blood (Theatre Three); Robin Armstrong, fight choreography and costume design, Bach at Leipzig (Circle); Bryan Wofford, set design, Boom and Long Way Go Down (Kitchen Dog); Cindy Ernst and Zachary Broadhurst, set design, subUrbia (Upstart); Randel Wright, set design, Talk Radio (Upstart); Jeffrey Schmidt, for his season of design at Theatre Three, Echo Theatre and the Festival of Independent Theatres.
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Best touring productions: August: Osage County; Beast of Taylor Mac; Spring Awakening; Xanadu.
Emerging artist award: Actor Joey Folsom, for performances in a series of challenging productions, including Upstart's Talk Radio and subUrbia.
Special citations: To Dallas Theater Center's production of Neil LaBute's trilogy, The Beauty Plays, for innovation, ensemble acting (by Regan Adair, Aleisha Force, Matthew Gray, Abbey Siegworth, Lee Trull, Christina Vela, Steven Walters), direction (Joel Ferrell, Matthew Gray, Kevin Moriarty) and the inclusion of lively post-show audience talk-backs. And to Fred Curchack, for his work as a renaissance theater artist.
Members of DFW Critics Forum are Alexandra Bonifield, CriticalRant.com; Martha Heimberg, Turtle Creek News; Arnold Wayne Jones, Dallas Voice; Mark Lowry, David Novinksi and Perry Stewart, TheaterJones.com; Punch Shaw, Fort Worth Star-Telegram; Lawson Taitte and Joy Tipping, The Dallas Morning News; and me.