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Stage Review: CLO's 'Fair Lady' is truly fine fare

Wednesday, July 09, 2003

By Christopher Rawson, Post-Gazette Drama Critic

When a musical doesn't work, the usual object of blame is the combination of story and words -- the book. So let us now praise George Bernard Shaw!

Glory Crampton stars as Eliza Doolittle in Pittsburgh CLO's production of "My Fair Lady" now through July 20 at the Benedum Center. (Matt Polk photos)

"My Fair Lady"

Where: Pittsburgh CLO, Benedum Center, Downtown

When: Through July 20; Tuesday-Friday 8 p.m., Saturday 2 and 8 p.m.; Sunday 2 & 7:30 p.m.; some exceptions

Tickets: $12-$44; 412-456-6666

His name is in minuscule type on the title page of Pittsburgh CLO's "My Fair Lady," which opened Tuesday at the Benedum. But this is a musical that definitely does work, and how could it do so without the tantalizing ideas and carefully wrought language of Shaw's "Pygmalion," so much of which is used unchanged?

I'm not slighting the contributions of book writer and lyricist Alan Jay Lerner, who had to decide which of Shaw's very, very many words to keep, or of composer Frederick Loewe, who clothed the lyrics in such memorable music. But for all the glory of its songs, "My Fair Lady" rides on its brains.

It makes do with the flimsiest central conflict, which is really little more than "Will Higgins break out of his diffidence and learn to value Eliza?" But Shaw packs in meaty thoughts on class structure, societal convention, the power of language and the dilemma of women.

Politics, too. I found myself thinking about nation-building: Like Higgins, we're learning that a personality remake isn't just a simple six-month project. "How the devil do I know what's to become of you?" Higgins shouts, like George Bush complaining of ungrateful Iraqis.

But it's the Higgins-Eliza relationship that ultimately moves the story forward. Shaw adapts the Pygmalion-Galatea myth, but rather than have the sculptor fall in love with his own creation, he has the creation grow more complex than the sculptor expects. In Shaw's play, the relationship has no plausible future, but the musical encourages us to think it does.

So it all comes down to Higgins and Eliza, played by Charles Shaughnessy, late of "The Nanny," and Glory Crampton, a musical pro.

Charles Shaughnessy stars as Henry Higgins in Pittsburgh CLO's production of "My Fair Lady."

I was disappointed in Shaughnessy to start. Even though he's English-born, I think his accent too mid-Atlantic. But the real problem is his lack of bite, as in his opening song about the English language. This is a cute Higgins, at the cuddly end of the spectrum. Eventually, that stands him in good stead when we are meant to warm to him at the end.

Crampton has spitfire zest to make up for his lack -- irresistible object meets rumpled marshmallow. Hers is a commanding performance, too obvious at times but knowing. She has the pipes for Loewe's beautiful songs, and she can rein it in when necessary -- witness the clever tentativeness of her careful "raaain in Spaaiin" breakthrough and the delicate sentiment of her return to Covent Garden.

Director Glenn Casale's concept is unusually sunny. CLO veteran Lenny Wolpe is a sprightly Alfred P. Doolittle, Edmund Lyndeck (the CLO's regular Scrooge) is a humorously doddering Col. Pickering, and Terry Wickline and Patricia Fraser make telling cameos of the motherly women in Higgins' life. Among the songs high on the Familiarity Index are "On the Street Where You Live," a pop aria delivered with full effect by Max von Essen.

Michael Anania's elaborate set features a massive Mackintosh-inspired facade for Higgins' study, all burled oak, tapestry and period stained glass. There's a hall of mirrors for the ball and a bosky display for Mrs. Higgins' garden. (But why does the facade of St. George's Church, Covent Garden, sport two large permanent opera posters?)

Gregory Poplyk's costumes are especially fabulous for the showy Ascot sequence, where the hats alone are like an explosion in the sweet shoppe of a genius baker.

I guess we're in the midst of an impromptu Shaw festival hereabouts, with "Major Barbara" and "Don Juan in Hell" just completed at the Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre and "Fanny's First Play" about to be done by the Summer Company. He succeeds as well without music as with.

Christopher Rawson can be reached at crawson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1666.

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