Weekly Wire
Gambit Weekly Deliciously Didactic

By Dalt Wonk

OCTOBER 13, 1997:  A classic," said Ezra Pound, "is news that stays news." And by that standard, My Fair Lady certainly deserves a niche in the Pantheon of musical theater.

Watching the current first-rate revival at Rivertown Rep, I was struck by how fresh the show remains. Inspiration defies analysis, of course, but some of the ingredients that contribute to the play's perennial appeal seem open to appraisal.

To begin with, there is George Bernard Shaw, whose mischievous spirit sets the tone. In Pygmalion, the play on which My Fair Lady is based, Shaw discovered a theme perfectly suited for his own idiosyncratic sense of theater, which was an amused and mordant didacticism.

Shaw's characters are well-rounded, vibrantly alive -- and yet somehow not entirely bounded by the "real" world in which the story takes place. There is always something just a bit artificial in the situation and language. The characters inhabit the world of the story but also that other world, the world of the "stage."

I suppose to some extent the same may be said of all characters in all plays. But in Ibsen, for instance, this aspect is resolutely kept to a minimum. Shaw delights in it. And this artificiality in the midst of a compelling narrative is only a short step away from musical theater. The play is, in a sense, a libretto without music.

Alan Jay Lerner's achievement was to take the ironic and witty Shavian attitude and incarnate it in the lyrics of the songs. What we get is not the razzmatazz and straight-ahead enthusiasm that marks much of musical comedy, nor the earnest (and often lugubrious) emotions of "serious" musical drama. Instead, the show offers a sort of scaled-down, simplified and modernized outgrowth of the same spirit that produced Gilbert & Sullivan.

In addition to Shaw's sardonic premise (in which the difference between a duchess and a flower girl is nothing more than a question of phonetics), Lerner also inherited Shaw's masterful way with dramatic storytelling and his appealing cast of characters.

Under Alton Geno's direction, the cast at Rivertown Rep has brought these turn-of-the-century Londoners engagingly to life.

The role of Henry Higgins, the monomaniacal linguist who creates a social belle from a cockney waif, presents a special challenge. This is a character who could no longer be written. It is unthinkable that a contemporary author would leave Professor Higgins' mysterious sexuality intact. Shaw did, however, and so we have Higgins singing hilarious paeans to misogyny like "Never Let a Woman in Your Life" or "Why Can't a Woman be More like a Man." And he describes, with a revealing shudder of disgust, the beau that Liza probably hopes for -- one who has "a thick pair of lips to kiss you with!"

What are we to make of this abstinent individual or the nature of his attachment for Liza? It is a love story without a single embrace. And perhaps that accounts for some of its charm, especially now when things have swung so much in the opposite direction that it seems almost normal for a former employee to identify the president of the United States by certain peculiarities of his scrotum. In any case, Ken Risch handles this demanding role with a mixture of brio and naturalness that makes the tyrannical Higgins and all his eccentricities utterly plausible.

As Liza Doolittle, Ashley Smetherman is attractive, willful, ingenuous, comic -- and never cloying. And she manages the transformation from cockney to Court of St. James without straying from the central truth of her character. Fermin Ramos as the bumbling, but magnanimous Colonel Pickering fills out the play's central triad with a nice, light touch.

Alfred Doolittle, Liza's drunkard father who is perpetually on the lam from "middle class morality," is a truly juicy secondary role. The character, designed for comic relief, sits like a shoal in the sea of theater upon which the sirens of overacting sing their lethal and seductive songs. So it is a joy to watch Russell Hodgkinson navigate these treacherous waters with an off-handed aplomb and infectious good humor that survives some awfully broad schtick. He shines during the musical numbers.

Linda Hubchen as Mrs. Higgins, Jimmy Murphy as Freddy Eynsford-Hill and Andee Reed as Mrs. Pierce provide solid supporting work. Alton Geno's choreography is inventive and generally well-served by the ensemble of dancers. Robert Self's set, Trish Mclain's costumes, Daniel Zimmer's lighting design and Brandt Blocker's musical direction all contribute to this satisfying production.

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