Watching the show unfold, layer after breathtaking layer, I couldn’t help being reminded of the classic pitch from those late night TV commercials for Ginsu Knives, “Wait, Wait, there’s more!”
Not long after I’d jotted down how director Amanda Dehnert was succeeding in squeezing every last smidge of humor from this classic script, she surprised me, exposing the very DNA of the source material, George Bernard Shaw’s play “Pygmalian” on which the 1956 Lerner & Loewe musical was based. To a grand and dramatic effect, she revealed the crushing and often-cruel class system that must be overcome—or at least overlooked—for the unlikely romance of a flower girl and an English Gentleman to ever be consummated.
The result is a play that manages to leave you walking out of the Bowmer Theatre not only gaily humming the many infectious tunes, but thinking as well.
Perhaps what I’m responding to is related to the fact that the production is modeled on the touring company version of the show. While the show that opened on Broadway in 1956 featured a pit orchestra of 26 musicians, the score for the traveling companies was recreated for a pair of pianos, with company voices filling in for the lack of instrumentation.
I admit, having adored the show on Broadway as a child—as well as the film adaptation—I entered the theatre a skeptic. How could two keyboards provide the sumptuous sensory experience of memory? While the wall of sound might not qualify as sumptuous, the musical presentation was every bit as satisfying. And the on-stage presence of the pianists worked. In no way does this have the feel of a scaled-down show.
It is, though, a very different piece, and in some ways superior to the original, with a staging that is novel and effective. Perhaps the most noticeable difference is that Dehnert consciously loosened the corset of conventions associated with this classic. For one thing, she keeps the company chorus handy, stowed in two rows of upstage theatre seats, serving as peanut gallery and subtle sounding boards to the protagonists.
And, while the original was given over as a masterpiece guarded by a Do Not Disturb sign, Dehnert has set out a welcome mat, making the fourth wall permeable at times and lighting a spark or two of spontaneity. The result is a sense of immediacy and even intimacy.
Since this is the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, I have come to expect new twists, novel turns and even radical departures. But nothing prepared me for the smoking, showstopping “Stomp”-like acapella dance and rhythm interlude that erupted in the midst of “Get Me to the Church on Time.” Wow. (Perhaps the company can issue this is as a stand-alone video.)
The straightforward story here is about an attempt by British linguist Henry Higgins (Jonathan Haugen) to turn a cockney-accented flower girl, Eliza Doolittle (Rachael Warren), into a proper-English-speaking lady.
When we first meet Warren’s Eliza, she is such a tough and street-hardened survivor—much tougher and much more real than the character portrayed by Audrey Hepburn or Julie Andrews—that I couldn’t imagine a softening…ever, and certainly not in just two acts.
The same was true with Haugen’s Higgins whose arrogant veneer appeared case-hardened against any errant tender thought. (As when his partner, Pickering (David Kelly) asks, “Doesn’t it occur to you that the girl has some feelings?” and he replies succinctly, “No.”)
Yet, as a result of these choices, the arc of development of the protagonists was far grander in dimension than I could have imagined, producing a most poignant and even somehow unexpected conclusion.
While Warren and Haugen do great justice to the book by Alan Jay Lerner and the music by Frederick Loewe, Tony Heald, back to OSF after a year away, borrows if not steals the show with his broad and boisterous rendering of Eliza’s father Alfie, a most crude and cockney clown.
Kudos as well to Ken Robinson as Eliza’s crooning suitor Freddy and Miriam A. Laube as Mrs. Pierce, who heads Higgins’ household staff. Robinson displays his pure vocal power on “Street Where You Live,” sustaining one sweet note seemingly for minutes. And Laube is quite simply a force of nature on stage.
This production, which plays through Nov. 3, feels like a classic in its own right. See it soon so you can see it again.
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