REVIEW BY CARY GINELL
In the opening scene of the Rubicon Theatre Company’s production of My Fair Lady, buskers in London’s Covent Garden, where Cockney Eliza Doolittle works as a flower girl, are rewarded with tuppence given to them by members of the audience. It is this kind of intimacy, an initial breaking of the fourth wall, that helps make Rubicon’s current production an enchanting, warm-hearted interpretation of one of Broadway’s most beloved musicals.
Although My Fair Lady, which was first produced on Broadway in 1956, is a standard musical featuring a full orchestra, one of the productions offered by its publisher, Tams Witmark, is a two-piano version, which is often performed in smaller venues. Rubicon’s version, elegantly directed by James O’Neil, is one of the most stylish and appealing shows of the season, and a delight from start to finish.
When churlish phonetician Henry Higgins launches into “Why Can’t the English,” it becomes immediately apparent that My Fair Lady works even better in a small setting than in the cavernous halls where it is usually performed. And why not? The cast features only a handful of principals, a small ensemble, and production numbers that are easily reduced to smaller settings.
The story revolves around the enigmatic relationship between Higgins and Doolittle. Although they begin as tutor/pupil, their roles progress to master/chattel, employer/servant, and finally, and possibly, potential lovers. (O’Neil manages to eliminate the last of these possibilities in the show’s final scene, which is deliberately ambiguous as to how they really feel about each other. It’s a different take on the show’s ending, and actually quite satisfying.) The masterful shadings of this relationship, plus the superb performances by the cast, are akin to putting the entire story under a microscope. In a small setting, all the secondary interrelationships between the characters are also amplified: the chummy kinship between Higgins and avuncular dialectician Pickering, Higgins and his wisely sardonic mother, Eliza’s dysfunctional relationship with her ne’er do well father Alfie, and with her starry-eyed simp of a suitor, Freddy.
Henry Higgins is one of a handful of characters who has been indelibly defined by one actor – in this case, Rex Harrison, who portrayed Higgins both on stage and in the subsequent motion picture version. Joseph Fuqua, a Rubicon regular who has performed in over 25 Rubicon productions, has actually improved on the role, taking advantage of the character’s closer proximity to the audience to infuse Higgins with a greater sense of humanity than is usually perceived on a larger stage. Fuqua delivers with an absolutely brilliant and nuanced performance, playing it more like Peter O’Toole than Harrison, but utilizing the essence of what Harrison infused into the role, magnifying it through subtle amplification. Fuqua’s Higgins is less imperious and warmer. We understand him more because he injects into his character his absolute delight in his vocation, which is also his avocation: the majesty and grandeur of the English language. Higgins’ true affection for his work is something that all of us should aspire to. Although Higgins is still a misogynist and ego-driven, Fuqua is able to peel away Higgins’ personality like the layers of an onion; despite his bluster and condescension, he beautifully conveys Higgins’ affection for Eliza, after starting out treating her as a coarse object to be sculpted into something beautiful just to win a bet, as defined by George Bernard Shaw in his play Pygmalion, on which the musical is based.
Higgins’ songs are still impatient rants about how he feels the world should reflect his own way of thinking, upper-crust British raps performed in a rhythmic manner that is half-spoken and half-sung. In “Why Can’t the English,” Fuqua is more metrically observant than Harrison was. The twin piano accompaniment, deftly executed by Lloyd Cooper and Chris Kimbler, actually works better than an orchestra, making it sound almost Joplin-esque in a jaunty, Edwardian way.
Kimberly Hessler is absolutely captivating as Eliza. Her Cockney elocution at the outset is perfect, and she seamlessly proceeds through her transformation from squashed cabbage leaf to duchess with nuanced brilliance. In addition to her magnificent, shimmering soprano (best exhibited on the soaring “I Could Have Danced All Night”), Hessler is also a wonderful actress, evoking the spirit of Julie Andrews, the original Eliza. When she sings “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly,” you can see the stars in her eyes as she envisions a poor flower girl’s ideal life: a cozy room where she won’t be cold and an endless supply of chocolate. In “Just You Wait,” she revels in the specter of Higgins’ martial-like execution, her eyes glistening with triumphant vengeance. Insightful and often breathtaking, Hessler delivers with an extraordinary performance.
As good as Fuqua and Hessler are, Patrick De Santis is a delight as Eliza’s rapscallion father, Alfie – a virtual mirror image of the legendary music hall comedian Stanley Holloway, who so memorably played the role on Broadway and in the 1964 movie. De Santis’ two featured songs, “With a Little Bit of Luck” and “Get Me to the Church on Time,” are highlighted by Carolanne Marano’s adroit choreography. De Santis’s best scene comes when he invades Higgins’ home to deftly negotiate a few extra quid in exchange for allowing his daughter to remain in Higgins’ auspices.
The show’s secondary characters are equally well-presented: Rudolph Willrich as the elegant, warm-hearted Pickering, Will Sevedge as the hopelessly smitten Freddy Eynsford-Hill, Linda Kerns as Higgins’ stern but kind-hearted housekeeper Mrs. Pearce, and especially Susan Denaker, in a delicious turn as Higgins’ wise, dowager mother. In the ensemble, Michael Stone Forrest and Christopher Carothers are especially effective as Alfie Doolittle’s streetwise bar buddies.
The two pianists, Cooper and Kimbler, are tucked away on either side of a grand staircase, which serves as the set’s centerpiece in all of the scenes, however Cooper is whimsically referenced by Higgins on several occasions, making change of a ten-pound note for Higgins to give to Doolittle, and having a rose planted between his teeth during “The Rain in Spain” tango. The twin piano arrangement works beautifully throughout the show, however, there is one song where a full orchestra is missed: on “Get Me to the Church on Time,” which really requires a raucous, brassy background to augment the joyous revelry of Doolittle and his salty chums.
Marcy Froehlich’s elegant costume design is marvelous, but especially in the “Ascot Gavotte” sequence, in which she adhered to Cecil Beaton’s original monochromatic concept. Prop designer T. Theresa Scarano should also be mentioned, if only for her inclusion of the authentic Edison wax cylinder recorder used in Higgins’ study.
My Fair Lady is one of the most celebrated of all Broadway shows, one that has been often called “the perfect musical.” No matter how many times you’ve seen the musical or the motion picture, you owe it to yourself to see how beautifully this “loverly” show translates to the reduced tableau as displayed in the Rubicon’s sumptuous and highly entertaining production.
My Fair Lady plays through November 15 at the Rubicon Theatre Company in Ventura. For dates and showtimes, visit the VC On Stage Calendar.