"My Fair Lady," which opened Saturday at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, has it all: clever dialogue, lovely music and a sassy plot. In 1956, Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe created an enchanting musical from George Bernard Shaw's 1912 play "Pygmalion," a biting satire on the British class system and incipient feminism. "My Fair Lady" has been described by The New York Times as "the perfect musical." It's survived translation onto film and been revived on Broadway numerous times.
Amanda Dehnert directs OSF's version in the Bowmer Theatre. Dehnert's production concept emphasizes the theatricality of the piece. The insufferably smug Professor Henry Higgins is still here as are his outrageous efforts to change the speech patterns of the appealing and stubborn Eliza Doolittle and make her into a "lady" fit to present at an embassy ball. Dehnert has wisely kept the 1912 setting and designer Devon Painter has provided lovely, fluid costumes.
Rather than a full orchestra, Dehnert uses two onstage grand pianos and two violinists with the more intimate musical arrangement approved by composer Loewe. She has the ensemble actors seated behind the action in wooden auditorium seats on risers, with costume changes on racks behind them. There are onstage fences, stairs, balconies and, discreetly downstage, a set of double doors lit by gaslights. The actors move and dance around the pianos as well as up and down the risers and in between those auditorium seats.
Thanks to Rachael Warren's voice and presence as Eliza, OSF's "My Fair Lady" soars. But it would have soared higher if it lost those two grand pianos on the stage, the wooden auditorium seats and some rather clunky choreography. There is so much "business" going on that we often lose the focus on Higgins, Eliza, the gentlemanly Colonel Pickering and, as impossible as it seems, even the irrepressible Alfred P. Doolittle.
Jonathan Haugen provides a fine Henry Higgins and speaks/sings his musical numbers authoritatively as he decries his countrymen's poor pronunciation in "Why Can't the English," proclaims himself in "I'm An Ordinary Man" and even while musing "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face." David Kelly provides an apt foil as the stalwart sidekick, Pickering, and Miriam A. Laube is equally fine as the disapproving housekeeper, Mrs. Pearce. Anthony Heald lustily sings and romps about energetically as Eliza's ne'er-do-well dad, Alfred P. Doolittle, chortling about "A Little Bit of Luck" and exhorting his chums to "Get Me to the Church on Time."
Dehnert is also the music director for the show and the music does glow. The onstage pianists, Matt Goodrich and Ron Ochs, are ably backed by violinists Chloe Brown and Cecily Palzewicz. The spare music arrangement showcases the actors' voices and makes the melodies more intimate, more personal to the characters.
But it is Warren that carries this show. From her plaintive "Wouldn't It Be Loverly" coveting "warm hands, warm face, warm feet," to the jubilant "I Could Have Danced All Night," Warren stays in character — and in accent. She is a joy to watch.
Dehnert has said she sees "My Fair Lady" not as a love story but rather a tale of transformation, friendship and learning that we need other people in our lives. And, indeed, we cheer when Eliza masters that the rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain. We smile as she successfully waltzes around the embassy ball and we cringe when Higgins and Pickering congratulate themselves for Eliza's triumph, totally ignoring her. And, best of all, we understand when Eliza makes her own decision to return to Higgins, accept him as he is but, this time, on her own terms.
Roberta Kent is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach her at email@example.com.