When the hats are the highlight of a theater production, you are either doing something very wrong, something very right or – and this is important – something in between.
That best sums up the Skylight Music Theatre production of the beloved "My Fair Lady," which opened a month-long run Friday night. Some of it was outstanding, some of it wasn't and some was tough to watch.
Ever since the show was announced, Skylight has talked about the costumes – especially the hats that were going to be designed by Chris March, a Project Runway veteran who has designed for everyone from Meryl Streep to Chaka Kahn and lots of big stars in between.
The message clearly got out to the full house that was there opening night. When the spectacular tableau of black and white costumes appeared on a brightly lit stage near the end of the second act, the applause was heady and deserved. The costumes were unique and beautiful, and the hats … well, the HATS!
The horse race scene where the hats appeared was the introduction of Eliza Doolittle to high society after months of strict tutoring by Professor Henry Higgins, determined to turn a guttersnipe into a lady by teaching her to speak the King’s English.
The musical, one of the most beloved in the musical theater canon, was a Broadway hit, an Academy Award winning movie with Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn and a frequently staged play everywhere from high schools to regional professional companies.
Everybody knows the story, and probably everybody in the audience knew the wonderful songs written by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe. Next year, this musical will be 60 years old, but it holds up remarkably well.
The story of class, the struggle to get out of your class and the struggle of others to maintain their standing is a resounding one today. If the solution in "My Fair Lady" is a bit simplistic, so be it. It is still heartwarming watching Eliza turn from a crass and insecure flower girl who works the streets of London for a pittance into a lady, pursued by men, mistaken for a princess and finally getting the man she loves and who loves her.
This show sinks or swims on the skills of the two actors who play Higgins and Eliza.
Milwaukee favorite Norman Moses, who seemingly can play everyone from Groucho Marx to poet Robert Lowell, brings a fresh look to the Higgins role that Harrison played on Broadway, in London and in the film.
He gives Higgins less of an extreme edginess than Harrison. With Moses at the helm, we get a fully realized Henry Higgins, one with a healthy ego but also with doubts he covers with an almost artificial conceit.
Chicago actor Natalie Ford follows her sparkling turn as Cinderella in the Rossini opera at Skylight last season creating a splendid and stirring Eliza. Your heart can’t help but go out to her as we watch her struggle to become something she longs for and finds that what she longs for may eventually be right in front of her.
Ford is cute as a button, a lot like Hepburn, and I‘m sure the comparison is not coincidental. A blonde blowsy Eliza just wouldn’t do it for anyone. She has a great soprano and flows easily from her early moments as a Cockney flower girl with all the ghastly language that denotes, to the rarefied air of a true lady mingling where she has never mingled before.
The chemistry between the two is, perhaps, the most critical quality of the production, and both Moses and Ford seem like they have been on stage together often. No matter what the story says and no matter where it is for the moment, there is a palpable love between these two that provides the magic.
I wish I could have this kind of praise for the rest of the performances, but with a couple of exceptions – Diane Lane as Higgins' mother and Rick Richter, an actor who has spent years in small time theater, as Colonel Pickering – I found a lot wanting.
The difficulty came in the two parts of the phrase "musical theater." There are two parts. On the music part, this show was just fine with wonderful choreography by Pam Kriger.
But in the theater part, there was problems. Rather than list them all, let me just contrast two examples.
There are two very romantic songs in "My Fair Lady," "On the Street Where You Live" and "I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face."
Let me take the last one first. Moses sings the song at the end of the show when Eliza has disappeared from his life. It is a passionate song, and his delivery dripped with longing and passion and wonder and worry. It was a master telling a story.
Now for the next one.
When Eliza first shows her new self in public, she catches the fancy of Freddy Eynsford-Hill. He is struck with puppy love and stands in front of her door singing "On the Street Where You Live." This is a song full of longing and romance and desire and hope.
Tom Mulder plays Freddy. He’s got a marvelous voice. But watching him sing this song, it seemed almost like a march. Or that he was a bad little boy who had been caught doing something naughty by his mother and he was trying to explain his actions away.
He was an example of some of the excess of this production, hiding a lack of acting chops behind great singing or great choreography. There was way too much "Okay, now I’m going to sing this song" and not enough storytelling. Overacting isn't needed for this heartwarming story and it was a distraction in this production.
But the overwhelming work by Moses and Ford made for an enjoyable and thrilling evening and one that fits well into anyone’s holiday plans.
"My Fair Lady" runs through Dec. 27 and information on showtimes and tickets is available here.
Production Team: Stage Director, Dorothy Danner; Music Director, Shari Rhoads; Choreographer and Assistant Director, Pam Kriger; Assistant Music Director, Ann Basten; Scenic Designer, Stephen Hudson Mairet; Costume Designer, Chris March; Assistant Costume Designer, Susanne Maroske; Lighting Designer, Michael McNamara; Sound Designer, John Tanner; Dialect Coach, Raeleen McMillion; Stage Manager, Erin Joy Swank.
With a history in Milwaukee stretching back decades, Dave tries to bring a unique perspective to his writing, whether it's sports, politics, theater or any other issue.
He's seen Milwaukee grow, suffer pangs of growth, strive for success and has been involved in many efforts to both shape and re-shape the city. He's a happy man, now that he's quit playing golf, and enjoys music, his children and grandchildren and the myriad of sports in this state. He loves great food and hates bullies and people who think they are smarter than everyone else.
This whole Internet thing continues to baffle him, but he's willing to play the game as long as OnMilwaukee.com keeps lending him a helping hand. He is constantly amazed that just a few dedicated people can provide so much news and information to a hungry public.
Despite some opinions to the contrary, Dave likes most stuff. But he is a skeptic who constantly wonders about the world around him. So many questions, so few answers.