Monday, May 7, 2018

Musical Comedy Revivals: My Fair Lady and The Will Rogers Follies

Harry Haddon-Paton, Lauren Ambrose, and Allan Corduner in Bartlett Sher's My Fair Lady. (Photo: WNYC)

In Bartlett Sher’s lush, rewarding revival of My Fair Lady at Lincoln Center, Lauren Ambrose gives the best portrayal I’ve ever seen of Eliza Doolittle, the Cockney flower seller transformed into an Edwardian lady. Ambrose, best known as one of the co-stars of TV’s Six Feet Under, has only a smattering of theatrical experience (which includes a fine performance in Sher’s production of Clifford Odets’s Awake and Sing! in 2006) and no background at all in musicals, but she turns out to have a pellucid lyric soprano voice and an unerring sense of musical-comedy style.

Sher has shaped Lerner and Loewe’s joyous 1956 musical version of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, which he wrote on the cusp of World War I, as Eliza’s coming-of-age story, and Ambrose shows us exactly how she grows up. When she presses her way into Professor Henry Higgins’s Wimpole Street digs, offering to pay him to give her elocution lessons after encountering him outside Covent Garden the night before (where, engaged in research on English dialects, he took down hers in a kind of hieroglyphic shorthand), Ambrose’s Eliza is still a child. She’s willful, whiny, squeamish about the unfamiliar trappings of the upper-middle-class household she’s just entered, prone to squalling tantrums yet possessed of a fierce, scrabbling energy and a proletarian wit and irresistible – if somewhat uncategorizable – charm. She’s grown up without a mother and without much help from her father, a merry but self-involved dustman, and Higgins’s tossed-off boast to his fellow linguist, Colonel Pickering, that he can turn this “guttersnipe” into a lady with an elegant enough turn of phrase to run a flower shop liberates her fondest ambitions. But Higgins treats her like a little girl, promising her chocolates and nice clothes and taxi rides if she submits to his exhausting vocal exercises, and she responds as a little girl when he refuses to let up on her. Ambrose presents “Just You Wait, Henry Higgins” as a child’s revenge fantasy, and when, prematurely, Higgins brings her to his socialite mother’s to try out her newly acquired etiquette on one of her at-home days, Eliza is like a child squeezed into grown-up clothes, struggling to mimic the manners he’s taught her. But by the time the Embassy Ball rolls around – he’s bet Pickering he can pass her off as a lady at that revered social event – the style she’s mastered operates as a metaphor for a new-found maturity. Ambrose gives a vivacious musical-comedy performance embroidered around the idea of Eliza’s propulsive and poignant discovery of her identity.

My Fair Lady is a not-quite romance between Eliza and Higgins that seems to settle itself into one at the end, after she’s walked out on him, furious at his having taken her for granted, and he’s sung the final song, “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face,” one of those musical revelation numbers that no one, perhaps, has ever done better than Lerner and Loewe. (The title song from Gigi is another great example.) He lies back in his easy chair, closes his eyes and listens to the recording he made of her the day she came to see him for the first time, and meanwhile she slips into his study unnoticed, turns off the device (at Lincoln Center it’s a wonderful old cylinder machine) and repeats one of her first phrases to him, “I washed my face and hands before I come, I did.” It wasn’t Lerner who softened the ending of Shaw’s satirical high comedy; it was the excellent 1938 movie version, which starred Wendy Hiller and Leslie Howard. But it’s always seemed right, even if we can’t quite imagine what the future will be for Eliza and Higgins. As Higgins, Sher has cast Harry Hadden-Paton, a newcomer to the New York theatre scene but familiar to viewers of Downton Abbey (where he played Bertie Pelham) and The Crown (Martin Charteris). Hadden-Paton is a very good actor, and though he seems a little tentative on his first number, “Why Can’t the English?,” he’s secure with “I’m an Ordinary Man” and his rendition of “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” gets the tonal transition and the emotional one embedded in it. The problem is that he isn’t really a musical-theatre performer; he has a more muted, realist style than Ambrose. And when the marvelous Norbert Leo Butz shows up as Alfred P. Doolittle, Hadden-Paton is outnumbered; the combination of Butz and Ambrose puts him in the shade. Butz plays Doolittle as more of a scamp than Stanley Holloway (who created the role on Broadway and repeated it in the overrated 1964 movie version, where he was one of the indisputable bright spots). Holloway, whose performance was indelible, was pure English music hall; Butz is a Broadway pro. I’m happy to have both approaches in my memory bank.

The revival features Allan Corduner (Sir Arthur Sullivan in Mike Leigh’s movie Topsy-Turvy, about the original D’Oyly Carte production of The Mikado) as Pickering, but oddly he doesn’t seem to have made a decision about how to play the role, and he’s a trifle chilly. But then there are Diana Rigg, bringing her genius for high comedy to the role of Mrs. Higgins, and Linda Mugleston, dry as vermouth, as Higgins’s housekeeper Mrs. Pearce, putting up, as best she can, with his impossible demands and his ironically awful manners and his irascibility and his bachelor’s denseness. Jordan Donica inherits the thankless juvenile part of Freddy Eynsford-Hill, who gets to sing one of the score’s two big takeaway hits, the melodic “On the Street Where You Live,” the other being, of course, “I Could Have Danced All Night.” (In his memoir, On the Street Where I Live, Alan Jay Lerner tells the delightful story of how he had to talk Frederick Loewe out of cutting Freddy’s solo, which Loewe hated. The song flopped out of town because Freddy was such a non-presence in the show that the audience literally couldn’t remember who he was, a problem Lerner and Loewe solved by adding the verse as a kind of reminder.) Donica sings the tune very sweetly.

As always, Sher and the set designer Michael Yeargan have used the mammoth space of the Vivian Beaumont extravagantly, especially in the Wimpole Street scenes that take up most of the running time. Instead of restricting them to Higgins’s study, Yeargan has included other rooms in the house as well as a glimpse of the garden as the set keeps revolving. In “The Servants’ Chorus” (“Poor Professor Higgins”) that prefaces “The Rain in Spain,” the domestics are situated all over the house as Higgins puts a weary Eliza through her paces and (to quote another Lerner lyric from a different show) the hours turtle by – at one point one of the maids is flirting with the local bobby in the garden, at another one manservant sits on the staircase with a hot water bottle, and so forth. One of Sher’s trademarks in his musical productions is his fondness for using staging tricks to suggest the feel of a community, and that’s what he does here most playfully. The choreographer Christopher Gattelli enhances that idea in Norbert Leo Butz’s two big numbers, “With a Little Bit of Luck” and “Get Me to the Church on Time,” which are, as they should be, among the highlights of the evening. The only idea Gattelli tries out that doesn’t really work is some drag in the second of these, which brings Doolittle and his pals into a demi-monde you can’t believe these staunch working-class types would be likely to sample. Sher’s other usual collaborators, the costume designer Catherine Zuber and the lighting designer Donald Holder, are at their best.

The My Fair Lady score is one of the treasures of the golden age of Broadway musicals, and there’s never been a more literate piece of musical theatre. Yet this great show has lost its cachet in recent years because it’s been misperceived as sexist.  Henry Higgins is a misogynist; Alan Jay Lerner isn’t – it seems almost insulting to have to point out the difference. Jesse Green in The New York Times and other critics have made a big fuss over Bartlett Sher’s updating the vision of the show for the #MeToo age by furnishing an up-to-date take-charge Eliza, as if Shaw hadn’t written those scenes where she tells Higgins what she thinks of him and Lerner hadn’t adapted them. Sher has added a brief exchange from Pygmalion between Higgins and his mother in which she mocks him and Pickering as little boys playing with a real-life doll, and it’s fine to include it: a little more Shaw, a little more for Diana Rigg to do. The only other change, besides a couple of pieces of staging that focus on Eliza and remind us that she’s the protagonist – and shoring up the notion of her coming of age – is to the ending. Eliza comes back, but after Higgins speaks the musical’s famous last line, “Eliza, where the devil are my slippers?,” she touches his face tenderly and then disappears again, leaving him smiling after her. The combination of these details – the return, the dialogue exchange, the touch, the departure, the smile – renders the moment incoherent. Sher’s addition, in his staging of Fiddler on the Roof, of a frame involving a non-Jewish immigrant reading the story of Tevye was also a mistake, I thought. But these alterations are tiny slip-ups; they don’t spoil the experience of either show. There’s no director I would prefer to put his hand to a classic American musical.

The cast of The Will Rogers Follies rehearses at Goodspeed Opera House. (Photo: Diane Sobolewski)

Understated yet astonishingly charismatic and magically relaxed, Keith Carradine gave one of the best musical-comedy performances I’ve ever seen in the 1991 Broadway production of The Will Rogers Follies: A Life in Revue. When I set out for the Goodspeed Opera House to see the new revival, directed by Don Stephenson, I suddenly realized that, aside from Carradine, I couldn’t remember a single thing about the show – not a song, not a scene, not a number – despite its impressive pedigree: a book by Peter Stone, music by Cy Coleman, lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, staging and choreography by Tommy Tune. Somewhere in the middle of act one I realized why: this is a musical that you can forget while you’re watching it. The Goodspeed production is perfectly pleasant. Stephenson has staged the show efficiently on Walt Spangler’s set.  Kelli Barclay’s choreography has some high points, especially in the “Will-a-Mania” and “Give a Man Enough Rope” numbers at the beginning of the first act, and the ensemble, especially the four male dancers (Michael Biren, Aaron Burr, Brad Frenette and Borris York), is excellent. David M. Lutken has just the right commandingly self-effacing presence for the role of the wry, corn-fed humorist whom Ziegfeld starred in edition after edition of his Follies – and his rope tricks (and those of the dancers) are constantly diverting. (I wish, though, that he’d resisted the temptation to make a curtain speech. When a performer is on stage for almost every scene in a two-and-three-quarter-hour musical, a curtain speech really feels like self-indulgence, and it’s a bad idea to press the audience into offering up a round of applause for all the extra-special backstage folks who are doing such a bang-up job.)  As Will’s wife Betty, Catherine Walker is in lovely voice and displays a great deal of warmth. David Garrison, as Clem Rogers, Will’s confident, critical yet winning papa, steals all his scenes, as the role is designed to do.

But there’s not a damn thing going on in the musical. The book, which is strictly from hunger in the first act, is pretty much from famine in the second. The conceit of the musical is that it showcases Rogers’s life as Ziegfeld (the offstage voice of James Naughton) might have staged it, and the meta-theatricality is good for a few laughs. What it mostly keeps us aware of, however, is that the story is so thin and undramatic that it needs the form of a revue to make it worth a look. There’s no conflict except for Betty’s complaint that Will’s professional life as a stage and then radio and movie star and newspaper columnist keeps him so busy that he’s almost never home, and she never gets upset enough to do more than grouse a little. We know from early on that Rogers is going to die in 1935 when his friend Wiley Post’s plane goes down over Alaska, but that inevitability functions more as a gag – Post keeps showing up and Will keeps reminding him that it’s not yet time – than a dramatic element. Except for “Give a Man Enough Rope,” the songs are mediocre; there’s a reason that they don’t tend to show up in anthologies of Coleman’s work or of Comden and Green’s. The Will Rogers Follies played for more than two years on Broadway and toured, but it didn’t need to be brought out again. It’s the embodiment of blandness.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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