Saturday, September 18, 2010

Unaccustomed to this face

(Valerie Reaper as Eliza Doolittle in "My Fair Lady"at the Beck Center for the Arts. Photo by Kathy Sandham.)

Perhaps she was still suffering the effects of all that "South Pacific" shampooing. Or maybe she had bumped her head one of the many times she'd been wired to Never Never Land. But something caused the great Mary Martin to reject Lerner and Loewe's invitation to create Eliza Doolittle in their musicalization of Shaw. As a matter of fact, she even related to her husband: "Richard, those dear boys have lost their talent.

Oops. For as any civilized citizen knows, that cross pollination of Shaw and lilting waltzes turned out to be one of the most enduring house plants in all of musical theater. And with their "My Fair Lady," Beck Center has set out to prove this. To comprehend the eccentricities - or, dare we say, grotesqueries - of this production, try to envision Hirschfeld's famous caricature of a god-like Shaw pulling the strings of his puppets Henry Higgins and Eliza as rendered by Salvador Dali. Now, substitute for the beaming Shaw a wild-eyed Paul Gurgol, director and choreographer of the Beck deviation, in a court-jester cap trying frantically to untangle the strings of these bedraggled marionettes.

Gurgol has done everything he can to test this masterpiece's resilience with enough bizarre inventions to fill out a Eurotrash "Ring" cycle. The evening commences with Galatea waving her arms to start the storm that will eventually bring Higgins and Eliza together. And what a Higgins. From Howard to Harrison, tradition has always given us a slender, egotistical aesthete as the charming but cantankerous linguistics professor. So imagine our surprise when we first encounter roly poly Bob Russell, whose Higgins can't decide whether to base his persona on Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot or MGM's Oliver Hardy.

Equally disconcerting is coming upon Valerie Reaper's Cockney flower girl dolled up as a pink Dresden shepherdess. (See photo above.) When acting, her toothy Eliza gives off an aura of a young Carol Burnett doing her routine in Edwardian England. Yet when it's time for her to unleash her creamy soprano, we suddenly are reminded of all of the radiant Elizas who have captivated untold businessmen and matinee ladies.

One other weird aspect of the production is that Colonel Pickering (Dana Hart) is far sexier and irresistible than his cohort in transformative crime. Oh, how we yearn to see this Higgins and this Pickering switch roles. However, aside from the fascinatingly appalling attempt at period costuming, undernourished ball scene and incredible lack of romance, there are enough felicities to make the teenage girls sigh. These include an exquisitely rendered "On the Street Where You Live" (Benjamin Czarnota as Freddy) and a charmingly droll "Get Me to the Church on Time" (delivered with just the right vaudevillian snap by George Roth, whose rascally Doolittle is worthy of a far plusher "Lady").

With a Higgins and an Eliza whose relationship generates bewilderment instead of sparks, we believe it would be kinder to all this time around that Eliza follow Shaw's original instruction and marry Freddy. Ha!

(Bob Russell as Professor Henry Higgins and Valerie Reaper as Eliza Doolittle at Beck Center. Photo by Kathy Sandham.) 

Beck Center performs "My Fair Lady" through Oct. 17. For tickets, call 216-521-2540 or go to

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