Saturday, October 01, 2005

opening-night review of My Fair Lady at the Civic

through Oct. 29 on the Main Stage

There are three moments in the first act of the Civic's current production of My Fair Lady (through Oct. 29) that convince us that we're in for an evening of entertainment that's accomplished in its own right, distinct from whatever Hepburn-and-Harrison memories we may retain from the 1964 movie. Because make no mistake, mate, director Troy Nickerson and his talented cast have stepped up to one of the highest peaks in American musical theater and nearly reached the top. Despite some second-act flatness and some deficiencies in one of the leads, the Civic's season opener is a visually attractive, sometimes raucous, often quite moving rendition of a beloved musical.
The first of those three moments arrives when Kendra Kimball as Eliza Doolittle emerges from behind the men's quartet to join in "Wouldn't It Be Loverly?" All any of us wants, after all, is a clean, well-lighted "room somewhere, / Far away from the cold night air." At the outset of a luminous performance, Kimball reminds us how much of this Lerner and Loewe show concentrates on simple pleasures: creature comforts, being cared for, learning generosity. With her face smudged above her red and black flower girl outfit and her Cockney bray in full evidence, Kimball engages in some delightful dance steps with her partners, then uses her beautiful, yearning soprano to depict the kind of world we all long for. It's a sequence that, as it should, puts us in the corner of the underdog flower girl.
The second moment comes when David Gigler as Eliza's father, Alfred Doolittle, spills drunkenly out of a pub, soon launching into "With a Little Bit of Luck." Almost unrecognizable underneath his long dustman's coat and bowler, Gigler makes a hilarious and irresponsible drunk. (Just as his daughter is going to be force-fed some phonetics and turned almost in spite of herself into a proper English lady, the amoral Doolittle finds himself nudged against his will into respectability. But that comes later.) No sooner has Gigler boasted that he gave his daughter the gift of life as if it were some major accomplishment but he's hitting her up for money, so he can have "a bit of liquid protection" before he faces Eliza's (unseen) mother. Whether he's wobbling drunkenly into other people's faces or trying to stifle Alfred's intestinal eruptions, Gigler creates a detailed and very funny comic portrait: wiping his sleeve, hogging chairs, toying with expensive instruments, hopping with the delight of a potbellied Bacchus who's light on his feet.
Gigler leads the chorus in some of Nickerson's and Ryan Callan's inventive choreography: step-slide swaying; some unexpected foot stomping; some square-dance moves; and gradual entries leading to a realistic town-square gathering of folks who are showing up just to see what this scalawag Doolittle is up to now. While the opening crowd scene (flower sellers outside Covent Garden) seemed tentative and slow, after that Nickerson and Callan have designed some natural-seeming dance sequences.
The "poor Professor Higgins" sequences are deftly handled, giving us a sense of how much time is passing as Eliza struggles with her language lessons, and there's a hairs-on-the-back-of-the-neck moment when Eliza finally learns how to enunciate all those vowels in "The Rain in Spain" -- and she, along with Thomas Heppler as Henry Higgins and Wes Deitrick as Col. Pickering, executes a Spanish-tinged dance of joy that's among this show's several sets of naturalistic movement.
But the third of the opening-act highlights arrives soon after in Kimball's rendition of "I Could've Danced All Night." She stretches her soprano to impressive heights -- and after a nearly anticlimactic moment when housekeeper Mrs. Pearce (Norilee Kimball, stately and imperious) drags Eliza off to bed, she reappears to repeat the chorus. With able support from Don Malpass on flute in Carol Miyamoto's five-piece pit band, Kendra Kimball croons with arms outstretched, isolated in a pin spot, operatic -- a vision of the kind of joy we'd all like to get out of life.

There are still more things to admire about the Civic's Lady. Peter Hardie's versatile set provides plenty of dark wooden furnishings for Higgins' study, serving as a half-dozen exteriors as well. Nik Adams provides opera posters and a far-off perspective of St. Paul's Cathedral that evokes the neighborhood right there 'round London Bridge.
Deitrick mines comedy out of the sidekick role: silly in a pith helmet, drinking too much when worried for Eliza's sake, modeling awkwardly for one of Eliza's "gowns," and lapsing into Eliza's dialect over dessert (asking for some "pline cike" and doing a masterful double-take).
Eliza's gowns alone would have made the costumes of Susan Berger and Jan Wanless outstanding -- but the list goes on, with men in wedding-cake suits, common laborers all grubby, a slew of color-coordinated servants in Higgins' household.
For the "Ascot Gavotte" horse race scenes, Berger and Wanless show off one elaborate black-and-white gown after another in what's clearly intended as the show's peak of couture. But all the Victorian vogueing slows down the pace -- and Adams' pastel tents on the backdrop curtain, while inviting in themselves, detract from the stark B&W colorless scheme. It's a misstep that slows a first act that's full of highlights.
There are twice as many memorable songs in the first half as there are after intermission, which goes a long way toward explaining why this Lady's second act felt emotionally flatter. But in a production that has many beautiful and thrilling moments, several of the less effective episodes congregated around Heppler as this show's Higgins. In the venerable Rex Harrison tradition, Heppler is talk-singing several of his numbers, which is fine. And he has the fussiness, the devil-may-care single-mindedness of a British academic who's been pampered for too long and immersed in the subtleties of his obscure specialization. Problems crop up in the first act in "I'm an Ordinary Man," when both the vocal and instrumental attacks on the chorus ("but put a woman in your life") were weak. On exit lines like "damn you!" and "let the hellcat freeze!" (both aimed at Eliza), Heppler wasn't convincing or irate enough.
Heppler is most interesting near the end, when he subtly allows the cracks in his self-satisfaction to show during the big argument with Eliza. Heppler doesn't quite catch the ambiguity of the medley of tunes (and emotions) that his character is supposed to express in among snippets of "You Did It" and "Without You" and the famous "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face." The wavering -- will he surmount his own selfishness and grow in much the same way Eliza transformed herself? -- isn't quite there yet, but may well be in a month's time (by the end of this show's run). But Heppler does achieve real pathos -- in his finest moment of the entire evening -- when, caught in a pin spot, he makes the final refrain of "Accustomed to Her Face" feel like a breakthrough moment: At last, the confirmed bachelor isn't quite sure of just how confirmed he is -- a wonderful moment.

Aside from spine-tingling touches like that one -- and those three stellar snapshots from Act One -- there are other highlights in Act Two as well. Kimball reprises "Wouldn't It Be Loverly" at the same fire where she once warmed herself as a flower girl -- but this time, it's more poignant, because it's a vision of a dream of comfort and affection that she had within her grasp and lost. Kimball's ability to caress the notes and at the same time convey strong emotion convincingly is remarkable. While there was some staginess in her posing among the teacups during the argument with Higgins late in the show, usually Kimball acts convincingly and gracefully. Her Eliza isn't a performance that's merely "good for community theater." This is a performance that's just very good, period.
And the beauty of My Fair Lady is that it offers poignance like that -- right next to the raucousness of Gigler's Alfred Doolittle, who energizes the less satisfying second act with his "Get Me to the Church on Time" number. Dressed "like a ruddy pallbearer," he's risque with the girls, leading them in foot-stomping trios and side-to-side gallumphing that's a delight to watch.
George Bernard Shaw's century-old premise (in Pygmalion, the source for this musical) is dated now: We live in a culture in which bling and cars and flashy clothes are the status symbols. So what if Little Ms. Celebrity causes us to lose all respect for her the moment she opens her mouth? Americans don't go in for all this intellectual stuff -- we're not convinced that the way you pronounce your vowels or talk in general is anywhere near an indicator of character. But there is a way in which, after seeing the Civic's and Nickerson's My Fair Lady, that we do feel elevated. Eliza's ascent toward what is good and beautiful in life is a vision of our ideal, of the kind of home and happiness that we would all like to achieve in our lives. And Kendra Kimball's performance matches that kind of ideal.


At October 01, 2005 2:43 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

This doesn't necessarily affect anyone's view of any particular production of MFL, but it's interesting to note with regards to the Rex Harrison style: Mr. Harrison actually began to sing little by little more of F. Loewe's melodies as the very long run went on. However, Alan Jay Lerner put a stop to it, instructing him that Prof. Higgins is a speech teacher/professor of elocution -- ergo the music of his character is the music of speech (until of course the poignant struggle between old and new selves in his final number). So although the oft-noted tradition of Prof. Higgins' sprechstimme has been overly-blamed on a seeming underestimation of Mr. Harrison, the desire and intention lay with Mr. Lerner.

At October 01, 2005 12:08 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bobo, you might want to correct the mention of Eliza's mother in your review before publishing. It was Doolittle's ladyfriend, her "stepmother" that he was marrying.

Also, I think a mention of the actor playing Freddy is in order. (Phillip something-sorry, can't find my program.) He is an opera student with a helluva(n) instrument and his "On the Street Where You Live" was certainly a highlight of the show.

I think I would take exception with your contention that the Ascot scene was slow (although I agree about the colorfulness of the backdrop). It was my observation that the entire audience leaned in to see the gowns revealed and whispered comments and oos and ahs were in evidence. Each gown topped the one before and I overheard people voting for their favorites. It's one of those moments that people anticipate, like "Street Where You Live" and it definately delivered. Once all the actors were onstage and in place, the audience broke into applause.

I'd also give a shout out to the great supporting cast. We've all seen shows where the leads are fine but the chorus is lacking and this ain't one of them. Some wonderful, wonderful voices there, skilled dancers, actors and even a gymnast.

All in all a very enjoyable production. Check it out!

At October 01, 2005 1:02 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I admit to being underwhelmed with Heppler as Higgins but he really grew on me. I liked You Did It and Accustomed to Her Face quite a lot. I really can't fault Heppler's performance at all. His singing was quite good, which is more than you can say for Pickering's but he made up for it in other ways.

The opening street scene did seem unusually static with a lot of actors just standing around. (maybe they were saving up energy for With a Little Bit of Luck) But part of the problem on opening night was that it seemed like Higgins' mike was set quite a bit lower than Eliza's or Pickering's. Although I could hear him, it made it hard for him to be dynamic, in my opinion, when the people he is berating are louder than he is. This probably won't be a problem in the future.

Agreed that the confrontation in the mother's garden seemed stiff. It seemed like the actors didn't have enough room to really play that out. Maybe they could not have the table and just have the ladies sitting on chairs with teacups in their laps. That would give them a little more room to move around.

This is picky, though. It's a good show. I recommend it.

At October 01, 2005 1:42 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I disagree I thought Heppler was wonderful he brought his own style without trying to be a mimic.
You realy can not have people sitting drinking tea without a table way to informal.
I thought the costume parade was stunning I am sorry it was lost on Mr. Bowen.All and all a wonderful show sure some opening jitters showed but that is ok.
Mr Bowen always feels the need to flex his intellectual muscles.

At October 01, 2005 1:46 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree it is getting a bit boring

At October 01, 2005 2:56 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I say if the smarts fit, wear 'em. It doesn't bother me.

What I would be interested in would be a (friendly) discussion about what reviewers see as their mission. Are they advocates for the arts? For the consumers? For their egos?

Care to comment, Bobo?

At October 02, 2005 1:30 PM , Blogger Bobo the Theater Ho said...

To Screwtape:
I just love it that someone is throwing around words like "sprechstimme" at 2:43 am!
Seriously, thanks very much for your comment -- I didn't know that, and should have. I knew I was going out on a limb about Tom talk-singing, because I'm not even sure that he was doing that. What I'd like to know, Screwtape and others, is whether Lerner was right. Higgins clearly is devoted to the musicality of language. I can foresee a stunning moment when a talk-singing Higgins suddenly does break out into song at the end.

To Anonymous 12:08:
Sorry, "stepmother," right. I'll fix it.
I kicked myself all day yesterday for not mentioning Philip Atkins as Freddy Eynesford-Hill. He has a powerful voice. I thought his acting was less effective. "On the Street Where You Live" is the song I found myself humming afterward -- and yet I didn't really buy that he was head over heels in love. His singing seemed operatic and presentational to me.
The Ascot scene: First, I cheated on "Victorian vogueing" and knew it. It's Edwardian, but I couldn't resist the alliteration.
The costumes are spectacular. Susan and Jan do remarkable things on a limited budget. They were professional quality and, as you say, increasingly better as they went on.
But I finally realized yesterday the problem I have with that scene -- and since the costume parade has become something of a tradition, it's a fault more of production history than anything to do with the Civic's costumers. I think the costume parade undermines the point of that scene, which is that the aristocrats are snooty dolts out of touch with their own feelings. Eliza shows them up and amuses Freddy because she has plain human feeling, even in her newfound affected speech patterns. To the extent that we admire the costumes (and I admit some of that in myself, too), then we are missing the point about social class in a play/musical that is very much concerned with class differences.

These costumes were properly exaggerated, but no one seems to remark on that -- it's all oohs and aahs. But they're ridiculous, self-important boobs up there who feel sure that their clothes make them the pinnacle of style when in fact they humble the exalted into the nadir of stupidity. (Well, obviously I have issues with high fashion.)

Especially in Act One, I thought the chorus was fine when Troy brought them on in drips and drabs -- but once assembled as a large group, and especially in the opening sequence, there was a lot of wooden unsureness up onstage. It isn't easy to act naturalistically when you've got 300 people staring at you, I know. Often, this group gets it right -- but pick up your cues and relax, folks. That'll come as the run progresses.
Spokane is lucky to have _two_ good Shaw-based shows running (at least for another week) at the same time.

At October 02, 2005 1:54 PM , Blogger Bobo the Theater Ho said...

Thanks to all the anonymous commenters for their contributions.
My review did get more than a bit boring -- it's 1,500 words, twice as much as fit in on Thursday.
I got weary myself. But I kept wanting to record thoughts, just out of enthusiasm for a very good show.

To Anonymous 2:56:
You raise a great question, one I think about a lot. I only have time for a quick answer: advocate for the arts.
Certainly I fall into the ego trap a lot. If anything, this particular review was an example of how, given unlimited space on the Internet, I can and will blather on and on and on forever.
Maybe 10 percent of the ego, I'd say, is justified: in 41 years, I've seen a lot of shows. So sometimes, I can volunteer, "They chose Path A, but I've also seen Path B, which has the effect of highlighting Aspect C, which is a more/less consistent choice because ..." (like that).
But the point is NOT my opinion is the only correct one and you must adhere to it.

"Consumer guide" implies 'this is good, that's bad, you shouldn't like this but you should like that" -- a dead-in-the-water venture if ever there was one. People will like what they like, and vice versa. (Jim Kershner and I cringed over "Girls of the Garden Club" at the Civic, and people _flocked_ to it. I _loved_ "Anton in Show Business" at Interplayers, but it was too theater-centric to be a hit.)
The tricky part is that personal opinion comes into play:

I see my responsibility as to make observations and evaluations about a production and then back 'em up with evidence: He illuminates Iago's intellectual mastery when he keeps physical distance between himself and his victims, etc.

As I've said many times, I go to shows hoping that tonight, tonight I will see the best damn show I've ever seen.
And am nearly always disappointed. But some shows approximate the ideal. Others are lost, wandering off on tangents of their own.
This isn't a short answer.
My first-draft MFL review was so long in part because it's very nearly a rave. Total raves and pans are the easiest to write, and the most fun -- you're exhilarated, you're angry, and you vent.
But most shows require discrimination: 1, 2 and 3 were good because of A, B and C, but 4, 5 and 6 were poor because they failed to achieve X, Y and Z. Which leads to endless quibbling and details ad nauseam.
I keep trying.

In sum, I'm just trying to start a conversation -- that's why I'm excited about the potential this blog has, if people will just behave themselves.
I'm an educated and theater-experienced guy -- here are a set of observations, backed up with evidence from the performance, that make me think what I think. I may or may not be wrong -- you may agree or not. But if you examine why it is that you agree or disagree with what I've said, then the theater becomes a living thing that matters.
I _love_ it when I hear that so-in-so reads my stuff and nearly always disagrees with me. Great. He or she probably has good reasons for doing so.

I'm just one guy, one opinion. The ego crap creeps in when I'm trying to be witty with clever turns of phrase. Jim K. often says the same things I'm saying (two middle-aged white guys -- we often lament this), but says them more clearly and more briefly. And that's a great talent.

At October 02, 2005 2:14 PM , Blogger Bobo the Theater Ho said...

Bobo just can't shut up ...

I dropped a line in the preceding.

"The tricky part is that personal opinion comes into play:"
... I feel strongly about something and feel that I have good reason for feeling that way -- so the expression of what is only an educated opinion veers over into what sounds like a command: Like this, or suffer my wrath. Dislike that, or I will publicly expose you as a fool.
But it's not like that; it's just strongly held opinion. Your mileage can -- and should -- vary.

At October 02, 2005 11:11 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well Michael, to move this even further from any production, and into our collective head, I do believe that Lerner was right (and not only because the author has the right to be correct, even if not necessarily best for the piece). Characters in the best-written musicals use the musical language that they know -- examples could be provided if requested -- and so it only makes sense for Higgins to use his well-studied and perfected speech even in song.

Also, Lerner and Loewe are way ahead of you with "I've Grown Accustomed To Her Face". It walks the line between song and speech for a very deliberate reason. It is a resistant song of change from a creature of habit, brilliant if you ask me. Higgins will never burst into rhapsodic song as readily as Freddy, but he finds his melody eventually.

And finally, other than being sadly representative of the non-diversity of Spokane, why are both major theatre critics middle-aged white guys? Why doesn't the S-R let some of their other critics take on live theatre occasionally?

At October 03, 2005 10:46 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

0we don't mind the ramblings. it's amazing you can put so many complete sentences together at that hour after a show. people need to understand that is works a s first draft for the review that actually hits the paper. and remember that it is just one guy's opinion. if it irks you into seeing the show, that has the same effect as encouraging you to see it. either way it got you out of your chair at home and into the magical seat at the theater.

At October 08, 2005 12:48 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, some people really know how to kill a conversation. Or is it they're just not happy unless they have something nasty to say?

At October 08, 2005 2:08 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Saw the show last night it was amazing
everything Mr. Bowen said the ascot scene did not have was the very thing I took from it.
Congrats Civic Theatre way to set the bar high.

At October 08, 2005 2:11 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Screwtape yor remarks are bright and insightful maybe you should be writing the reviews.

At October 10, 2005 2:18 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

To "anonymous" #8 et al,
I'm afraid my unfading romanticism would get in the way of an honest critical eye -- my emotions are too easily manipulated :) --, but thank you for the compliment. Maybe we just need some young college graduate, maybe even with a theatre degree (though not necessarily requisite) to start writing for a publication in town. As long as they don't fall into the trap of bitterness toward projects they're not directly involved in, he or she could bring some fresh views out.

Or perhaps that's what this very forum could allow, if we all set out to stop posting negativities and instead just discuss civilly the ups and downs of our shows and our community. (Wow, I just sounded way too much like Michael... I think I'll stop typing now.)

At November 06, 2005 3:26 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for the response, Bobo and thank you to Kasey for your supportive comments. We forget how lucky we are.


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