Arts » Theater

Ain't It Loverly

Stripped-down staging brings out the heart in My Fair Lady.

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Eliza (Rachael Warren) learns to walk the walk.
  • Eliza (Rachael Warren) learns to walk the walk.

You've probably seen enough movies to know that no matter how much a guy and gal appear to dislike each other in the first reel, they'll be bonkers in love by the third. You can predict it almost to the exact second. That's why it's a treat to reencounter a sturdy old chestnut that defies those glib plotting trajectories.

There are a number of reasons My Fair Lady played for more than 2,700 performances on Broadway before it closed in 1963. And one of them is undeniably the unique core relationship, expressed in the book and lyrics of Alan Jay Lerner, which flashes insults and indignation almost until the final curtain. In this remarkably fresh and invigorating production by the Cleveland Play House, that contentious male-female dynamic is captured exquisitely.

But this is not a staging that's easy to cozy up to right away. Director Amanda Dehnert strips away all the usual tufted settees and bric-a-brac that place the action circa 1900, opting instead for a couple of metal staircases and plenty of places in which to hang costumes. In addition, she plunks the entire ensemble onstage, and there they stay, sitting on bleacher seats when not involved in the action -- which often swirls around the two grand pianos (and pianists) in the center. Just to make sure that you know where you are, a large marquee sign of the show's title is mounted on the bare back wall.

This streamlined approach frees both Dehnert and her cast to bring a new energy to songs that may sound as if they've been pried out of a rusty time capsule. But even though they're some 50 years old, Frederick Loewe's tunes for such numbers as "I Could Have Danced All Night" and "On the Street Where You Live" are enduringly lovely, even without full orchestral accompaniment.

This story of a language expert and his problematic protegée is an adaptation of George Bernard Shaw's play Pygmalion, and it reflects that playwright's interest in issues of gender inequality. Indeed, Shaw never wanted Professor Henry Higgins and the guttersnipe Eliza Doolittle to end up together. Still, the musical version finds a way to imply that there's more in Henry and Eliza's future than a shared passion for glottal stops.

The director, a fixture at the Trinity Repertory Company in Providence, Rhode Island, has brought two performers from that company to fill out the lead roles, and this proves an inspired decision. Timothy Crowe is a polished, proud, and pompous Higgins, fairly leaping at the chance to bet fellow dialectician Colonel Pickering that Higgins can turn a coarse flower peddler (Eliza) into a woman of refinement in just six months. As Eliza, Rachael Warren has the moxie and stage presence to stand toe-to-toe with Higgins.

But perhaps their shiniest moments are during the songs, which both Crowe and Warren act with superb insight and precision. When she croons "Wouldn't It Be Loverly," you can almost taste the chocolates and feel the warmth of the hearth fire that flickers in her dreams. And Crowe brings out all Higgins' contradictions in the wide-ranging "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face." As his character alternates between scoffing at Eliza and trying to understand the stirrings she has unleashed in him, Crowe makes lightning-fast shifts from one emotion to another without ever losing his balance.

While Eliza inches her way toward elegance, director Dehnert has fun with the ensemble, whether they're falling asleep when the language lessons progress late into the night or portraying both horses and socialites at Eliza's first public appearance at the Ascot racetrack. In that scene, the top hats of the men and flowered picture hats of the women descend from above on wires to rest on each person's head -- a neat trick that further integrates transparent staging into the show's flow.

A few small missteps don't impinge greatly on the effect of the overall production. To wit, when Eliza is screaming her protestations early on, it all comes out as one undifferentiated Cockney screech. And as Eliza's deadbeat dad, Larry Daggett has a bucketful of comic mannerisms to unload. But much of his shtick seems a bit too studied, so his stellar comedy numbers, "With a Little Bit of Luck" and "Get Me to the Church on Time," don't have the punch they might.

Thanks to the performances by the two leads, this Lady is more than a simple retread. Even with all the pretty melodies, the Shavian insight cuts deep when Eliza confronts Higgins, noting that she used to sell flowers and not herself, but "Now that you've made me a lady, I'm not fit to sell anything else!" That's the kind of thought that makes a great musical truly memorable.

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