Loverly: MY FAIR LADY at PlayMakers

Rarely would a musical be my first choice of what to see at the theater, but there are exceptions, and My Fair Lady is first among them. PlayMakers Repertory Company has just opened its fresh version of this classic by Allan Jay Lerner and Frederick Lowe, slipping plenty of substance under the frothy surface.

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Mia Pinero as Eliza Doolittle, and Jade Arnold as Freddy Eynsford-Hill in PlayMakers’ new production of MY FAIR LADY, in the Paul Green Theater through April 29, 2017.  Huth Photo.

 

Deriving from George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion (1913), which itself derives from Ovid’s tale of the sculptor Pygmalion and his creation with which he fell in love, My Fair Lady details the metamorphosis of Eliza, a very poor Cockney flower seller, into a lady who can be mistaken for a princess–a metamorphosis orchestrated by Professor Henry Higgins and undertaken on a bet with fellow language specialist Colonel Pickering. Higgins is so well-to-do that he cannot even comprehend the conditions of Eliza’s life or even that she has feelings–and he has no use for women, except as servants (of whom he has aplenty). Hell, he can’t even comprehend that he has feelings until Eliza changes him.

The musical keeps some of Shaw’s pointed political-social commentary about class stratification, labor and capital, but both the play and the musical fail woefully to come to grips with woman’s powerless position in the patriarchal world when she has neither money nor a room of her own. It’s Jane Austen all over again, a hundred (now 200) years later, but without the empathy: a “lower” class woman can make a living, even if by snatching at pennies; a “lady” without her own money can only marry. (For a more contemporary reworking of the basic story, see the 1990 film Pretty Woman.) No version satisfactorily answers the question of precisely how the creation–the lady–could love her “creator”–this is not an equal relationship, despite the woman’s spunk…but so romantic.

Just go with it. You can gnaw the bones later; for two hours and forty-five minutes, this production spoons up crème anglaise and meringues pavlova for your apolitical pleasure.

Tightly directed by first-time guest Tyne Rafaeli, this My Fair Lady‘s cast includes a quartet of PRC’s finest actors, some high-grade non-company local talent and two knock-out imported actors as Eliza and her father, Alfred P. Doolittle.

Mia Pinero as Eliza is suitably volatile, if occasionally over-petulant, and has an impressive voice, with a wide range–of octaves, of tone, of emotion, of volume. Except when she is foiled by the technical weakness of the headset, which turns certain timbres and pitches to mush, she’s a joy to hear. (I truly do not know why they use these headsets–the actors all can make themselves heard to the back rows without them.) Her rendition of “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly,” along with the ensemble, is particularly fine, and I say that as a person raised on the Julie Andrews version from the original Broadway cast album. Pinero imbues the song with such depth of longing for the simplest comforts that one may want to give away all one’s luxuries to the deserving poor.

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Gary Milner, with the ensemble, tearing it up as Alfred P. Doolittle in PRC’s lively production of MY FAIR LADY. Huth Photo.

 

It’s a set-up, though, for Alfred P. Doolittle’s paean to the non-working life, “With a Little Bit of Luck” and his most excellent monologue on the undeserving poor. If director Rafaeli hadn’t kept strong control on the balance among the scenes, Gary Milner as Doolittle would have run away with the show. He is amazing, superbly physical, comically acute and utterly insouciant, especially in “Get Me to the Church on Time.” And again, part of his strength comes from the ensemble around him–the dozen actors who play all the smaller parts: dustmen, chimney sweeps, barkeep, servants, opera-goers, Ascot race-gazers, ball guests. Not only does the ensemble convincingly create all these individuals, not only can they sing–they can dance. Tracy Bersley has given them some marvelous choreography that goes beyond the standard musical theatre dance tropes, and involves a lot of very close synchronization to be effective. Outstanding among the ensemble are David Adamson, John Allore and Shanelle Nicole Leonard.

Longtime PlayMakers Jeffrey Blair Cornell as Henry Higgins and Ray Dooley as Colonel Pickering are superb. Cornell plays in the wide open space between Leslie Howard’s bloodless priggishness (in the 1938 film of Pygmalion) and Rex Harrison’s bombast (in everything, including the 1964 film of My Fair Lady), and gives us a Higgins with whom it is possible to empathize–because he makes Higgins’ own metamorphosis believable. Cornell has an attractive singing voice, and he’s deliciously wistful and confused in “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face.” He and Dooley, colleagues these 22 years, work together as only time allows, and it is wonderful to watch. Dooley, who has an incredible range as an actor, is purely a treat as a the crotchety Colonel, a man’s man in a top hat.

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He Did It! He Really Did It! Ray Dooley, right, as Colonel Pickering; Jeffrey Blair Cornell as Henry Higgins, and Mia Pinero as Eliza after the ball, in PRC’s MY FAIR LADY. Huth Photo.

 

The men are buttressed by women, naturally–and luckily for us, they are two of the funniest women working on Triangle stages. Their roles are small, but they get the most out of them, and charmingly, director Rafaeli has given them almost identical laugh moments that involve the stage’s pit/lift. Julie Fishell plays Mrs. Higgins, Henry’s mother, with a relish almost masked by her languid motions; Julia Gibson milks the housekeeper’s role of more than you knew was there. Together, the quartet of PRC company members makes one aware all over again of our extreme good fortune in having this resident theatre company in our midst. (This is Fishell’s final role as a PRC member. She’s leaving us soon, bound for California.)

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Jade Arnold in full voice as Freddy Eynsford-Hill in PRC’s production of MY FAIR LADY. Photo: Jon Gardiner.

But wait, what about the feckless Freddy Eynsford-Hill, that foppish charmer and exemplar of undeserving wealth? Freddy, who has the most beautiful and romantic song in the show, “On the Street Where You Live,” is luminously portrayed by Durham actor Jade Arnold. I’ve seen Arnold do a number of surprising and thrilling turns on stage but I had no idea he could sing. He rightfully brought the house to cheers on opening night. It is a great personal pleasure to me to see PlayMakers turning a little more towards the local theatre community, as artistic director Vivienne Benesch concludes her first full season with the company.

All this talent is lusciously supported by the musicians–Mark Hartman and Alex Thompson on two yummy Yamaha pianos lent by Ruggero Piano Company–and by the design team. McKay Coble has created another effective and efficient set which is made richer by Masha Tsimring’s emotive lighting, and Andrea Hood’s costuming is really excellent, clearly setting the time period, enhancing characterizations, and looking swell.

Rafaeli has made the final scene ambiguous–is, or is not, Eliza returning to Henry, who has belatedly seen the light? This has always been a worrisome thing to me–the WHY of her return–but there’s no questioning the ways of love, however it may be torqued by power or lack of capital. Still, it is nice not to have it taken for granted. Altogether, this is a stand-out production: very sweet, but the calories are hardly empty.

Through April 29.

Excellent Production of AN ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE at PlayMakers Rep

I don’t know whether to be more relieved or depressed by the acute timeliness of PlayMakers Repertory Company’s production of An Enemy of the People. On the one hand, Henrik Ibsen’s 1882 script tells us that people in power have acted against common sense and the public good at least since then, and Arthur Miller’s 1950 update makes it clear that the problems were the same in his era–in other words, our time, though out of joint, with its spyware and its science-deniers and its ghastly secret fracking chemicals and its brave, unworldly warriors like Edward Snowden, is not anomalous in history. On the other, humanity has not made much noticeable improvement in itself since Ibsen penned his blistering critique of the politics of power and money in the everlasting joust between the truth-armed individual and an obtuse majority.

The Ensemble (Allison Altman as Petra, Julia Gibson as Mrs. Catherine Stockmann and Michael Bryan French as Dr. Stockmann, facing) in PlayMakers Repertory Company’s production of AN ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE,  by Henrik Ibsen, adapted by Arthur Miller. Photo by Jon Gardiner.

The Ensemble (Allison Altman as Petra, Julia Gibson as Mrs. Catherine Stockmann and Michael Bryan French as Dr. Stockmann, facing) in PlayMakers Repertory Company’s production of AN ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE, by Henrik Ibsen, adapted by Arthur Miller. Photo by Jon Gardiner.

 

Directed by Tom Quaintance, the PlayMakers company and guest artists give Enemy an intense immediacy, highlighted by the astute design choices (McKay Coble, set, and Patrick Holt, costumes) that place it in the 1950s, but also in the 2015  infatuated with “mid-century modern” and snap brim hats. Quaintance has paced the show for clarity and, without excess, for maximum wallop, allowing the excellent actors to work naturally in Ibsen’s and Miller’s tautly drawn situations in which their characters’ psychologies must be dissected. It’s the most satisfying show of the PRC’s 2014-15 season thus far.

Anthony Newfield as Peter Stockmann, and Michael Bryan French as Dr. Stockmann, in PRC's AN EMEMY OF THE PEOPLE. Photo: Jon Gardiner.

Anthony Newfield as Peter Stockmann, and Michael Bryan French as Dr. Stockmann, in PRC’s AN EMEMY OF THE PEOPLE. Photo: Jon Gardiner.

 

Briefly, the storyline is: Dr. Stockmann (Michael Bryan French, naive, flustered and implacable) has with his brother (naturally, it needs to be his brother) the Mayor, Peter Stockmann (Anthony Newfield, neurotic, politically skilled and implacable) have created a spa that’s bringing economic hope to their town. But after everything is built, the doctor discovers that the water is dangerously polluted. When the play opens, he’s just received the test results from the university, and he’s all set to tell the world, so that the healing spa waters won’t sicken anyone. The Mayor’s having none of that!

Julia Gibson and Michael Bryan French as Catherine and Dr. Stockmann. Photo: Jon Gardiner.

Julia Gibson and Michael Bryan French as Catherine and Dr. Stockmann. Photo: Jon Gardiner.

 

On hand to make the most of this conflict are a firebrand newspaper editor, Hovstad (Benjamin Curns) and a high-strung reporter (Gregory DeCandia) and their waffling editor, Aslaksen (Jeffrey Blair Cornell, just perfect) ready to twist in whatever way will benefit them the most. The doctor’s eccentric father-in-law, Morten Kiil (David Adamson, fiendishly good) bumbles around the edges, looking for the spot to drive in a wedge. The doctor does have a family who love and support and hector him–Julia Gibson as Katherine Stockmann and Allison Altman as their daughter Petra also keep the testosterone levels from becoming too overwhelming. All these excitable people in this little town are counterbalanced by the doctor’s friend, the taciturn sea captain Horster (Derrick Ivey), who’s been about the world and seen places where people weren’t allowed to speak their minds. He didn’t like that.

Ivey continues to amaze. Here he stands like granite, so dense he draws your eye again and again, even though he has only a handful of lines. His Captain Horster contains a vital paradox: He stands behind the doctor not because he understands anything he’s on about, but because he believes he is free to say it. Yet if that’s not the way it’s to be, he’ll morph from the stable to the flowing, and take them all to freedom in America. (That’s about the only thing in the play that seems dated, that belief in a bighearted, clear-thinking America.)

The production was slightly marred on opening night by some technical difficulties involving smoke and water, and maybe the mob could use a few more bodies (although John Allore, as the drunk, is a host in himself), but it’s a powerful play, powerfully done. It runs only through March 15 in the Paul Green Theater. Tickets online or call 919-962-7529.

You can read the play, with a good introduction by Arthur Miller, here.

Most readers will already know that PlayMakers has announced the forthcoming departure of company producing artistic director Joseph Haj this July, when he will leave Chapel Hill for the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. If not, see Byron Wood’s Indyweek piece here. I’d hoped we’d get to keep Haj for a couple of more years–he’s been a very positive force for this theater scene, beyond transforming PlayMakers. See my 2010 feature on Haj for a sense of how far we’ve come, and how lucky the Twin Cites will be to have him there. Bye, Joe.

Now the question is–who will be the next PRC artistic director? And–when?

Anthony Newfield as Peter Stockmann in PlayMakers Repertory Company’s production of “An Enemy of the People” by Henrik Ibsen, adapted by Arthur Miller. February 25 - March 15, 2015. Directed by Tom Quaintance. Photo by Jon Gardiner.

Anthony Newfield as Peter Stockmann in PlayMakers Repertory Company’s production of “An Enemy of the People” by Henrik Ibsen, adapted by Arthur Miller. February 25 – March 15, 2015. Directed by Tom Quaintance. Photo by Jon Gardiner.

 

Changing, changing: METAMORPHOSES at PlayMakers, in repertory with THE TEMPEST

Stories of metamorphosis abound in every culture; our changing bodies and changing desires have caused them to arise in the human mind since the beginning. Anyone raised in Western literary culture will have been exposed since childhood to the stories of strange and wondrous changes collected by the Roman poet Ovid (43 BC-18 AD) from all the Greek and Roman sources available to him and collated into 15 books of poetically flowing story, Metamorphoses. The stories explain things, like the existence of spiders; or lay out the consequences of behaviors like greed, incest, hubris or self-absorption; they offer consolations against the griefs of life. Ovid has been a source for writers as diverse as Shakespeare and the forgotten scribes of children’s early readers.

Arachne could weave even more beautifully than Athena, shown here disguised as a crone, preparing to turn Arachne into the first spider for that insolence. From the 1928 children's compendium, Book Trails. The story appears in Book VI of Ovid's Metamorphoses.

Arachne could weave even more beautifully than Athena, shown here disguised as a crone, preparing to turn Arachne into the first spider for that insolence. From the 1928 children’s compendium, Book Trails. The story appears in Book VI of Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

More recently, the playwright, director and MacArthur Fellowship winner Mary Zimmerman raided Ovid’s trove for her 1998 play, Metamorphoses. She chose just a few of his stories to enliven onstage, and augmented them with related material from other sources (poetry by Rainer Maria Rilke; the story of Eros and Psyche, which does not come down via Ovid), creating a theatrical experience that mimics the carefully crafted flow of Ovid’s work, in which each story has some connection to those on either side of it.

In Zimmerman’s work, water, that great signifier of formal fluidity and agent of change, is a central element, and water there is—a great pool taking up much of the stage–at UNC’s Paul Green Theatre, where PlayMakers Repertory Company has mounted Metamorphoses. Co-directed by PlayMakers’ Joseph Haj and visiting master artist Dominique Serrand, Metamorphoses is playing in rotating rep with The Tempest through Dec. 8.

The ensemble in PRC's METAMORPHOSES. Photo: Michal Daniel for PRC.

The ensemble in PRC’s METAMORPHOSES. Photo: Michal Daniel for PRC.

PRC has production capabilities far outstripping all other theaters in the area, capabilities created and supported by the company’s role in the teaching programs of the Department of Dramatic Art. Every production at PlayMakers is a learning experience for both acting and theatre-tech students, and they supply a huge labor force while learning. For a show involving water on stage, with actors continually getting in and out of it, backstage work increases exponentially; for two alternating shows in which actors and their clothes must be dried before their next entrance, a backstage cast of thousands and many flow charts (pardon the expression) are required.

Julia Gibson as the psychologist, Gregory DeCandia as Apollo, and Nathaniel P. Claridad as Phaeton. Ari Picker on guitar. Photo: Michal Daniel for PRC.

Ari Picker, guitar; Julia Gibson,  Gregory DeCandia, and Nathaniel P. Claridad, during Phaeton’s tale.  Photo: Michal Daniel/ PRC.

Carey Cox in the rain, with Nilan Johnson and Nathaniel P. Claridad, in METAMORPHOSES. Photo: Michal Daniel for PRC.

Carey Cox as Eurydice in the rain, with Nilan Johnson and Nathaniel P. Claridad, in METAMORPHOSES. Photo: Michal Daniel for PRC.

But one does not think about that while the stories unfurl and float away through the dark sea of mythic consciousness. One may think about time, or timelessness, or how much we are the same as the men and women who lived thousands of years ago and generated these mythic tales. One may be pierced or pinched by them to tears, so vivid are the stories and so exact their parallels to personal experiences. Just in case someone might have missed their relevance to contemporary issues, Zimmerman inserted a note-taking, jargon-speaking psychologist (well-played by Julia Gibson) into the story of Phaeton (Nathaniel P. Claridad) crashing and burning after taking his father (Gregory DeCandia) Apollo’s sun chariot for a disastrous spin. The script makes this a funny story, but most of them are not–though several do have happy conclusions. There’s not anything you can do to alleviate the pain of Orpheus, who just can’t not look back. But there is a kind of joy in the metamorphosis into seabirds of the grieving widow and her drowned husband, and celebration when Midas after much travail loses his golden touch and regains his live daughter. The great stories to live by are saved for the end, and by the end on opening night, the cast, most of whom are first and second year MFA students, had lost their initial stiffness and gotten into the rhythm (many of these actors also play in The Tempest which opened the night before, so some transitional moments can be forgiven). Both the story of Philemon and Baucis, an old, poor, couple who give hospitality to strangers, and thereby entertain the gods unaware; and the story of Eros and Psyche divided and reunited, are beautifully played. It’s wonderful to see these ancient myths brought to new life in young bodies, and to be reminded of  how, always changing, we never change.

Brandon Garegnani and Arielle Yoder as Eros and Psyche in the PRC production of METAMORPHOSES. Photo: Michal Daniel for PRC.

Brandon Garegnani and Arielle Yoder as Eros and Psyche in the PRC production of METAMORPHOSES. Photo: Michal Daniel for PRC.

As satisfying as Metamorphoses is, the companion production of The Tempest is even more fulfilling. My review was published Nov. 8, 2013, on Classical Voice of North Carolina, with the title “A Lucid Storm: The Tempest at PlayMakers.”

Julie Fishell as Prospero and Maren Searle as Ariel in PRC's new production of THE TEMPEST. Photo: Michal Daniel for PRC.

Julie Fishell as Prospero and Maren Searle as Ariel in THE TEMPEST. Photo: Michal Daniel for PRC.

Shakespeare’s The Tempest is one of his most delightful plays, and not only for its many pleasant aspects. A story’s told from start to finish, and in it wrongs are righted, men better themselves, and a love match is made. Spirits and monsters can be seen and heard. There are ridiculous pratfalls and tender revelations. There’s music, and language that could be called the same. But no matter what interpretation du jour is laid upon the script, the play’s meditation on the magical power of words and stories to create and shape life is what makes it so engaging each time one sees it, and so worthy of seeing again and again.

The young lovers Miranda and Ferdiand, played by Caroline Strange and Brandon Garegnani. Photo: Michal Daniel for PRC.

The young lovers Miranda and Ferdiand, played by Caroline Strange and Brandon Garegnani. Photo: Michal Daniel for PRC.

PlayMakers Repertory Company has just opened a refined and visually-lovely new….READ THE REST ON CVNC HERE.

Wonderfully comic Julia Wilson as Stephano, with Jeffrey Blair Cornell's Caliban and John Allore's Trinculo under the blanket, in PRC's THE TEMPEST. Photo: Michal Daniel for PRC.

Wonderfully comic Julia Wilson as Stephano, with Jeffrey Blair Cornell’s Caliban and John Allore’s Trinculo under the blanket, in PRC’s THE TEMPEST. Photo: Michal Daniel for PRC.

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