Biddy Signal: Muny goers be advised: My Fair Lady is showing her age

Jul 9, 2008 at 4:00 am

Ninety minutes into this week's Muny staging of My Fair Lady — which is exactly midway, because the performance lasts three hours — long after Henry Higgins has set out to teach proper speech to Eliza Doolittle, a lowly Covent Garden flower girl; after she has learned that the rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain; after the glory of accomplishment proves so thrilling that Eliza could have danced all night; even after we've met Eliza's incorrigible father, a lazy dustman whose philosophy is that with a little bit of luck he will work as little as possible — long after all of that heavy lifting from the principal players, a minor character casually strolls to center stage and neatly puts the show into his pocket.

As the innocuous Freddy Eynsford-Hill, Daniel Reichard joyously trumpets his way through "On the Street Where You Live." The good news is that Reichard is an out-and-out, bona fide showstopper. The not-so-good news is that "On the Street Where You Live" should be the evening's third or fourth showstopper. Reichard reminds us of what My Fair Lady can be when a production is soaring. But why carp about what's missing? Better to appreciate what's here.

What's here is melody upon now-classic melody by Frederick Loewe, laced with dexterous lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner. But in the half-century since this adaptation of George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion premiered in 1956, something inevitable has happened: The world changed. Now what has been widely hailed as "a perfect musical" feels decidedly old-fashioned. Today My Fair Lady has more in common with a quaint operetta like The Student Prince, written 32 years earlier, than with Into the Woods, which was written 31 years later. This Lady now seems far from perfect.

Consider, for instance, the ending of Act One. Eliza (Catherine Brunell) is about to attend the Embassy Ball, where she is to be passed off as a duchess. Naturally she is insecure. As the music swells, the misogynistic Henry is persuaded to take Eliza's arm and escort her offstage to the waiting car. Finally our hero and heroine are arm in arm. What a finale! Except it's not. We plod on to the ball, where we meet another inconsequential character. Zoltan Karpathy has the expertise to expose Eliza as a fake. As Karpathy meets Eliza, the overextended act finally ends. This is how Lerner wrote it; this is how the Muny stages it. And it falls so flat that not until the houselights came up did anyone in the opening-night audience even realize that the act had ended.

There's an even more serious problem at the end of Act Two, and it concerns the show's very reason for being. Early on, Robert Westenberg makes for an intriguingly misanthropic Higgins. But when he expounds on the story's spine — "What could possibly matter more than to take a human being and change her into a different human being by creating a new speech for her?" — Westenberg speaks in an urgent hush that makes us believe in his ambitions. But by evening's end a viewer has the right to ask if Henry has delivered on his promise and his premise. Is Eliza a different person simply because her grammar has improved? And if she has not changed, isn't the play's mandatory yet strained happy ending — the union of Henry and Eliza — a fraud?

I don't think we go to My Fair Lady for perfection; we go out of nostalgia. (The median age of attendees on opening night was probably 40 years higher than the median age at High School Musical.) Nostalgia for a time when melody reigned supreme in the musical theater and spilled over into daily life. Nostalgia for a time when what was playing on Broadway mattered to people everywhere, because the American musical was a part of the fabric of daily life.

Westenberg receives solid support from Joneal Joplin as his delightful partner-in-crime Colonel Pickering and from Zoe Vonder Haar as his acerbic mother. Then of course there is the aforementioned Daniel Reichard, who has almost nothing to do with the show — except stop it.

For which we can all be very thankful.