Mayfair, as any Anglophile knows, is the most fashionable neighborhood in London. Long the most affluent area in the capital, it also used to be the most exclusive. You not only needed money to enter, it had to smell the right way. The Cockney pronunciation of “Mayfair” is “mye-fair,” which means that lyricist Alan Jay Lerner buried this little pun in his title of My Fair Lady. Most have overlooked it, as he expected. Its presence, however, affirms that although My Fair Lady might be the most familiar of shows, with every note and every syllable known to every citizen above a certain age, it still has secrets to reveal.
At first glance the current production of My Fair Lady at Auburn’s Merry-Go-Round Playhouse appears to be classical, with all audience demands for familiarity met. We have a tall, articulate, patriarchal Higgins (Will Erat), and a big-voiced soprano for Eliza (Kimberly Doreen Burns), who is also gorgeous. Despite what the script says, Eliza never really looks like a guttersnipe (or “squashed cabbage leaf”), in Higgins’ words, and Ms. Burns is a trifle shorter than the template. No matter. She’s such an audience favorite at MGR (Thoroughly Modern Millie, Meet Me in St. Louis) with multiple Syracuse Area Live Theater (SALT) nominations, she can do no wrong, and every breath she utters is perfectly winning.
All the differences, like the overturning of secrets, derive from the all-female production team of director Jen Waldman, choreographer Lori Leshner and musical director Corrinne Aquilina. Director Waldman, making her fifth appearance in Auburn, has the most leeway, of course. She’s fondly remembered for her Man of La Mancha (2010), in which the rape scene was discreetly cleansed. In a dozen subtle ways, her shaping of the action switches the thematic focus of the whole from class to gender. Consider the self-congratulatory “You Did It,” in which Pickering and Higgins celebrate their success in passing off Eliza as a duchess at the ball. Usually Eliza sits at the side, silently dumbfounded and not receiving so much as a pat on the head for her performance. Here she’s front and center so that the old guys have to stumble over her to praise each other. This foreshadows the controversial final scene with Higgins, but more about that later.
My Fair Lady did not come to its high esteem in the canon of musical theater by chance. No less an eminence than Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber has proclaimed it the greatest show of the 20th century, and Frederick Loewe’s score superior to his own output. That might be because so many numbers are loving parodies of English styles, from Gilbert & Sullivan (“Just You Wait”) to Noel Coward (“Why Can’t the English?” and “I’m an Ordinary Man”) to traditional music hall (“With a Little Bit” and “Get Me to the Church on Time”). Such music is not only British but highly theatrical, composed to express character and to move a scene. For decades many of the numbers have stood by themselves, as well as party pieces, but restored to context they always move forward. Corrine Aquilina’s music direction of the 10-player ensemble guarantees it has not worn out its welcome.
In a vehicle without a single down moment, almost any song might qualify as a show-stopper, none better than the faux fandango, “The Rains in Spain.” It’s so exuberant and infectious, a director does well to leave it in place. But Waldman spritzes the two show-stoppers featuring Liza’s dustman father, Alfred P. Doolittle (Gary Marachek). Remembering that Alfred never troubles to marry Eliza’s mother until respectability threatens, and noting that he also speaks lightly of philandering, Waldman gives us a more libidinous character than we’re used to seeing. As in rhythmic pelvis thrusts. Given that My Fair Lady is actually 56 years old, Marachek’s extra spice might just be a fillip to keep us from taking the old guy for granted, still charming, but more of a rascal. Or it may be that Waldman sees a degree of sexual aggression in all attempted male dominance.
Easier to discern are Waldman’s recalibrations of relations between Higgins and Eliza. In Pygmalion, of course, there is no romance, and no characters in George Bernard Shaw plays ever kiss. Getting the charming but non-singing Shaw specialist Rex Harrison (“sexy Rexy”) to play Higgins made romance more plausible, but Waldman and Will Erat up the ante. Not only is Erat a considerable singer, still retaining the articulate diction of Harrison’s rhythmic speech, but he is less of a fool than others who have played Higgins. Even when wearing outré tweeds at a formal gathering, or when berated by his mother (Jane Willingham), there is nothing of the overgrown boy about him.
As for Eliza, director Waldman and actress Burns amp up her insecurity in the critical test of her ability to impersonate in the test at Ascot. Long a tradition, all characters appear in black and white, but costumer Garth Dunbar refuses to bow to Cecil Beaton’s famous models by having more dark grays on the men and more whites on the women. It’s still a visual treat. We know that disaster awaits the slipped vowel, but somehow Waldman and Burns get more laughs by exaggerating Eliza’s overcorrected diction. Burns, additionally, instead of looking blank in this scene like some other Elizas, reveals an unexpressed terror.
All of which leads to the final resolution. By that time, Higgins has told us he has become accustomed to her face, but Eliza’s “Without You” doesn’t come with the same angry dismissiveness. And Higgins’ slippers. Most often Higgins’ thrust of them signals a bracing irony, which women in the audience have found increasingly insulting over the decades. Not so here, where Waldman brings us closer to something like equity.
The role of the rejected, worshipful admirer, Freddy Eynsford-Hill (Brandon Davidson), is dramatically unrewarding, but calls for the full-throated delivery of one of lyricist Alan Jay Lerner’s proudest accomplishments, the song over which he labored the longest, “On the Street Where You Live.” Lovable and steady are the qualities called for from Colonel Pickering (John Little), who at least gets to join in the fun for “You Did It,” and charging like a bull at the red cape in “The Rain in Spain.” Joanna Krupnick as Mrs. Pearce also lights up two numbers, accompanying Eliza in “I Could Have Danced All Night.”
Lori Leshner’s dance numbers are a study in contrasts, pitting the exuberant Cockneys “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly” against the absurdly restrained aristocrats in the “Ascot Gavotte.”
Adam Frank’s excellent lighting and David Arsenault’s rapidly mobile
sets, in which a window or doorway can fly into place in an instant, are
continuing proof that that what we have been calling the Merry-Go-Round
Playhouse produces professional standards ready to endure national
scrutiny as part of the Finger Lakes Musical Theater Festival.
This production runs through Aug. 15. See Times Table for information.