“She sweeps out,” says George Bernard Shaw of Eliza in a stage direction at the end of Pygmalion, leaving Henry Higgins alone and feeling self-satisfied. As Shaw said emphatically in his postscript to the play, Eliza will marry Freddy, not Higgins, with whom there is no possibility of romance. Starting with the actor playing Higgins in the original 1914 production, extending to the 1938 movie, and culminating in the 1956 Lerner and Loewe hit, My Fair Lady, the temptation to turn the ending into something suggesting the possibility of conventional romance – an idea that Shaw loathed – has proved irresistible.
Frederick’s Way Off Broadway Dinner Theatre’s current production of the musical fully embraces that temptation, in the process validating Shaw’s misgivings. Start with the protagonists. Ken Kemp’s competent, conventional, by-the-numbers Higgins never deviates from the long-established performance tradition of a crusty, egotistical, domineering, insulting, utterly self-involved, significantly older man. Whatever his behavior toward Eliza might have been called in 1956, today we would unhesitatingly describe it as unrelenting emotional abuse. Strangely for a leading character, Higgins, played in this usual way, has almost no character arc, unchanging, acquiring no nuance, learning nothing (save perhaps a last-minute twinge of regret) over the course of the show.
Contrast that with Eliza (Megan E. West). Beginning as a slum girl, she takes the initiative to seek upward mobility through Higgins’ elocution lessons, perseveres through his draconian teaching methods, succeeds comically in her first “coming out” at the Ascot races, shines at the Embassy Ball, survives Higgins’ subsequent indifference, and becomes fully realized as an independent woman who can do without Higgins. Higgins doesn’t make her: she remakes herself using Higgins’ tools. So why should she complaisantly return? Doing so is unmotivated in her character and utterly undermines her show-long character arc, a major theatrical sin. The current Lincoln Center revival in New York tweaks the ending in a more Shavian direction, a device other productions could profitably employ.
Having known and loved My Fair Lady since childhood, I say with genuine regret that there is a serious question whether – at least without considerable reimagining – the central relationship of the show can still work credibly. What remains, of course, are the wonderful songs. Kemp sings Higgins’ materials markedly better than many who have played the role, and West is the outstanding vocalist in the cast.
Whether longingly (“Loverly”), joyfully (“The Rain in Spain” and “I Could Have Danced All Night”), angrily (“Just You Wait”) or triumphantly (“Without You”), West captures not just the notes – in an excellent soprano voice – but the mood and character development impact of each number. She uses dynamics skillfully, knowing how to capture the force of a line at a mezzo piano as well at a fortissimo level, giving herself somewhere to go from the beginning to the end of a song. She has a particularly poignant moment in a brief, a cappella reprise of “Loverly” in the second act, when she realizes she can’t go home again. West also displays good comic timing in her lines, notably in the “new small talk” portion of the Ascot scene.
But for sheer show-stealing magic, nothing in the production equals song-and-dance man Steve Steele’s turn as Eliza’s larger-than-life, hard-drinking, unashamedly undeserving father, Alfie Doolittle. Shaw liked to talk about the “life force,” and Steele’s Alfie is energetically full of it, whether expounding his unique view of morality to Higgins or wowing the house with “A Little Bit of Luck” and “Get Me to the Church on Time.”
The members of the ensemble blend well in the Ascot number and the house staff choruses leading to “The Rain in Spain.” Among the supporting cast, Brian D. Kaider is a kindly, albeit bland, Col. Pickering, and Jessica Billones does nicely as the Irish-accented housekeeper, Mrs. Pearce.
Putting on a large scale, multi-set show like My Fair Lady in Way Off Broadway’s restricted horizontal and vertical space is a challenge, and director/set designer/costume designer Bill Kiska makes good use of the resources available. The frequent set changes necessitate a number of scenes in front of the blank curtain, including for some major songs. The varied costumes are colorful and well designed, especially for the Ascot scene. Eliza’s gown for the Embassy Ball scene is unflattering, however. Kiska and choreographer Melani Drummer do well in setting the movement for the Embassy Ball and Ascot scenes, as well as for Alfie’s numbers.
Kiska and the actors are also due credit for a number of small, well-conceived choices at several points. For example, during much of “I Could Have Danced All Night,” Eliza holds a book, emphasizing the subtext that the main source of her joy is her newfound mastery of language. During the front-of-curtain reprise of “Get Me to the Church on Time,” the inebriated Alfie wanders about the stage trying to find the direction of the church.
Like most dinner theaters, Way Off Broadway uses a recorded score, and there were a few opening-night timing discontinuities between actors and accompaniment, but these minor glitches will doubtless smooth out as the production continues. In an era when actors in most productions are miked, it was refreshing to hear the performers’ unamplified, but well-projected, voices directly.
Running Time: Two hours and 45 minutes, including one intermission, and preceded by a dinner period beginning about two hours prior to curtain.
My Fair Lady plays through June 1 at the Way Off Broadway Dinner Theater, 5 Willowdale Drive, Frederick MD. For tickets, call the box office at (301) 662-6600.