The big question when watching a new production of “My Fair Lady” is always: Are the actors up for it?
All those famous songs. The classic story. The pedigree that includes George Bernard Shaw, Lerner and Loewe, Rex Harrison, Julie Andrews, Audrey Hepburn.
Happily for fans of this famous musical and theater in general, the cast of Coeur d’Alene Summer Theatre’s production that launched Thursday night are more than up for the task. The strong leads – Greg Stone as Henry Higgins and Allison Standley as Eliza Doolittle – get ample help from a talented supporting cast of local favorites, including Jerry Sciarrio as Eliza’s drunkard father, Alfred; Lanz Edwin Babbitt as the urbane and kind Colonel Pickering; Cody Bray as Freddy Eynsford-Hill; and Tamara Schupman as Mrs. Higgins.
Another question, at least for this production, is: How is CST going to fit in its new home, the more intimate Kroc Center theater? The answer? Pretty darn nicely. The theater is a great space, with lovely acoustics. And having the orchestra behind the stage actually helps balance out the sound, so the live music isn’t blasting over the singers’ vocals. A few minor technical glitches and some slow scene transitions were the only hiccups Thursday night.
For those not familiar with the tale, “My Fair Lady” was adapted in 1956 by Alan Lerner and Frederick Loewe from Shaw’s “Pygmalion.” It tells the story of a cockney flower girl, Eliza, who meets professor Henry Higgins, an overbearing, classist and sexist phonetician. His specialty is the English language, and they meet while he’s making a study of lower-class accents in London. On a bet with Pickering, another linguist, Higgins pledges that in six months he can turn Eliza from a guttersnipe into a duchess. So Eliza moves into his home and begins an intensive course of study. It doesn’t go well, until after a long day and long night, she finally gets it, resulting in the delightful number “The Rain in Spain” sung by Standley, Stone and Babbitt. It’s a moment of pure joy, and the emotion is palpable on Standley’s face as she perfectly sings those classic lyrics: “The rain in Spain falls mainly in the plain.”
While the cast all around is terrific, make no mistake: This is Standley’s show. Her Eliza has a devilish grin and an easy manner. Her cockney accent is so thick that it’s barely understandable, and her singing voice is simply divine. That she resembles Hepburn is an added bonus. She is Eliza Doolittle.
I also particularly enjoyed Schupman, who stepped into the role of Henry’s mother when Patty Duke dropped out due to illness. She has the right blend of starch and heart to play an upper-class matron who comes to like our lowly flower girl. Sciarrio is rock solid as the scoundrel Alfred Doolittle, who thinks nothing of, in essence, selling his daughter to Higgins for a few bucks. His song “With a Little Bit of Luck” is a comedic highlight of the show. Babbitt, meanwhile, is delightful as Pickering, and his voice pairs nicely with Standley’s and Stone’s.
For Stone, playing Higgins has its own challenges. Henry Higgins is a rather loathsome man – a misogynist snob. He thinks of Eliza as his property, while giving little thought to what becomes of her when he’s through with his little experiment. Stone brings a certain swagger to the role. A puffed-up chest. A straight spine. A flash of temper. Add to this a handsome singing voice and you have a great portrayal of Henry Higgins.
When it comes to the sexism of “My Fair Lady,” well, I could write a thesis on the gender politics of this play. But I won’t. After all, the attitudes about women – especially lower-class woman – are as much a product of the time the play is set – 1912 – as when it was written – the mid-1950s. During the Higgins song “I’m an Ordinary Man,” with its litany of female faults and flaws, my companion on Thursday leaned over and said with a sigh, “OK, we get it.”
Modern audiences may chafe at some of the attitudes expressed in “My Fair Lady,” but thankfully, the beauty of the songs and strength of Eliza Doolittle make them a little more forgivable.