A Twist of Limeys

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 Aida inside.

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 Lady that'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.

No one can fault actress Terry McCracken for her posh English accent as the formidable dowager Mrs. Graves in Enchanted April, the romantic post-WWI comedy now onstage at WaterTower Theatre. McCracken is as English as steak and kidney pie (but much prettier), and her expertly timed comedic performances are the highlight of many a production by Dallas' Anglo-centric Theatre Britain.

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?

Emily Scott Banks is Lotty Wilton, frustrated wife of a stuffy lawyer. She longs to break free of London's cold rain and her husband's chilly attitude. Marcia Carroll plays the prim Rose Arnott as a late bloomer who punishes herself for personal failures by shutting off all emotions except anger. Dana Schultes' glossy Lady Caroline glides around in a brandy-soaked haze, aching for lost love. And McCracken's Mrs. Graves, a towering old rhino with a penchant for walnuts, becomes almost girlishly giddy under the golden Mediterranean sun.

Director James Paul Lemons' crisply paced production delivers a charming two and a half hours of pitch-perfect storytelling and tight ensemble acting (there are also three men in the cast and they're good, too). The lead foursome interact seamlessly as believable traveling companions, each woman undergoing a profound metamorphosis that makes Eliza Doolittle's look like a cakewalk.

To counter all the girlish bonding of Enchanted April, check out the rough and tumble British blokes of Dealer's Choice, the tense, funny, powerful Patrick Marber play (he wrote Closer after this one) now winding up its run by Theatre Quorum at the Bath House. In the basement of an Italian restaurant, its owner, Stephen (Mark Oristano), hosts his employees in a weekly all-night poker game. If the workers lose, they work out their debts in unpaid overtime. Nice system--for Stephen, a bully who always wins.

For the head barman and perpetual loser Mugsy (Jeff Swearingen, playing a Cockney git wif nary a slip uvva syllable), winning big could mean a down payment on his own eatery (the spot he has in mind is a former public toilet, bless him). Mugsy plays every hand with hope in his heart but doesn't know when to stop losing. And when Stephen's gambling-addicted son (Bill Sebastian) brings a mysterious toff named Ash (Carl Savering) into the game, all bets are off as to who goes home with the pot.

Directed by Matthew Lyle, Dealer's Choice deals some delicious surprises. This is another heavy-hitting ensemble of actors, and it's this little company's best effort, hands (and English accents) down.

KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Elaine Liner
Contact: Elaine Liner