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.

Chekhov-tinted Comedy in PRC’s VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE

Have I mentioned lately how lucky we are in the Triangle to have a very good regional  professional theater at our public university in Chapel Hill? Currently, as it regularly does, PlayMakers Repertory Company is presenting a recent play in wide production around the country, which allows theater-goers here to share in a kind of dispersed national intellectual conversation. Through October 5, we are talking about Christopher Durang’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, which won the 2013 Tony Award for Best Play, and which provides a fabulous showcase for some of the PlayMakers company’s most comic talents, and for a flashy turn from the guest artist.

L to R: ARIELLE YODER as Nina, JULIE FISHELL as Masha, CHRISTIAN DALY as Spike (standing), JEFFEY BLAIR CORNELL as Vanya and JULIA GIBSON as Sonia (in background). Photo: Jon Gardiner.

L to R: ARIELLE YODER as Nina, JULIE FISHELL as Masha, CHRISTIAN DALY as Spike (standing), JEFFEY BLAIR CORNELL as Vanya and JULIA GIBSON as Sonia (in background) at PlayMakers Rep through October 5, 2014. Photo: Jon Gardiner.

VSMS is directed here by Libby Appel (artistic director emerita of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival), who directed an exquisite version of The Glass Menagerie for PRC a few years ago. She brings the same deft guidance to Durang’s play, ensuring that the delicate aspects of the characters are not lost in the rowdy roar of the broader comedy. Appel is undoubtedly aided in her approach by her deep knowledge of the works of Anton Chekhov: she has recently completed new translations of five Chekhov plays. The more Chekhov one knows, the more references one will catch and enjoy and correlate inVSMS, but it is not essential to know any.

Two siblings, Vanya (Jeffrey Blair Cornell) and Sonia (Julia Gibson), live in the house they grew up in, the house in which they devoted the prime of their lives to caring for their infirm, demented parents. The parents are now dead, and Vanya and Sonia are marooned with their disappointments and old grievances, their tedium interrupted only by Cassandra, their semi-psychic housekeeper (Kathryn Hunter-Williams). Their successful–but now losing the battle against aging–actress sister Masha (Julie Fishell), who pays the bills, blows in with her boy-toy (Christian Daly). He sets everyone on their ears with his bold sexuality. And then there’s the ingenue next door, Nina (Arielle Yoder). Oh yes, Masha announces her plan to sell the house, and her other plan–to take everyone to a costume party. She’s brought their costumes: her brother and sister are to be two of the dwarves to Masha’s Snow White. One revolts; one doesn’t.

Under Appel’s direction and with this tight ensemble the play achieves a dynamic balance between the outsized comic carrying on and the right-sized human sibling interactions, with the two catalytic outsiders to inject additional energy. Christian Daly, with his large-planed face and hyper-physique, is very amusing as the ridiculous would-be actor Spike, and his presence in the story allows for even more theatrical references to bolster all the Chekhovian ones. He makes you want to wash your hands, but lovely Arielle Yoder makes you feel like you have just washed your hands. Her character Nina may be star-struck and stage-struck, but she is an actual ingenue, and her presence is a balm to the older people.

The squabbles, alliances, attacks and unexpected revelations of the three siblings always ring true, and form the more memorable aspect of the show. Julie Fishell is a marvel to behold as the fading movie star Masha: commanding, neurotic, comic, tragic–and ultimately, released from her fears, at least for a minute. Her timing, as ever, is impeccable.

KATHRYN HUNTER-WILLIAMS as Cassandra and JEFFREY BLAIR CORNELL as Vanya. Photo: Jon Gardiner.

KATHRYN HUNTER-WILLIAMS as Cassandra and JEFFREY BLAIR CORNELL as Vanya.             Photo: Jon Gardiner.

Comic honors go to Kathryn Hunter-Williams for her portrayal of the nutty housekeeper Cassandra, who goes about in floating clothes, spouting warnings and prophecies. The scene with the voodoo doll is purely hilarious. All fans of Hunter-Williams will want to see her in this unusual role.

But Jeffrey Blair Cornell as Vanya and Julia Gibson as Sonia, although they had the quieter roles, made the heart beat in the play. I’ve seen Cornell play many, varied, characters, but I had never seen him inhabit a role more fully than he did Vanya on opening night. It was a beautiful performance, robust but nuanced emotionally. He and Gibson, who has shown amazing range in the short time she’s been with PRC, interacted with a testy ordinariness that was both amusing and endearing.

Gibson rather steals the show with Sonia’s transformation from dumpy whiner (“I have no life!” “I am a wild turkey!”) to a voluptuous woman who can take action. Her appearance in a blue beaded evening gown, speaking like Maggie Smith, brought the house down, but the later scene, when Sonia takes a phone call from a man she’d met at the costume party, is far more affecting. Gibson’s face expresses a trajectory of emotions leading to a tentative happiness, a surprised contentment. And in the final scene, the three siblings nestle together, sharing those emotions. Lovely.

 

JEFFREY BLAIR CORNELL as Vanya and JULIA GIBSON as Sonia. Photo: Jon Gardiner.

JEFFREY BLAIR CORNELL as Vanya and JULIA GIBSON as Sonia. Photo: Jon Gardiner.

ASSASSINS Hits Target, Wins Prize at PlayMakers Repertory Company

Attention must be paid to PlayMakers' ASSASSINS. L to R: Jeffrey Meanza as Charles Guiteau, Maren Searle as Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, Gregory DeCandia as Leon Czolgosz and Joseph Medeiros as Guiseppe Zangara. Photo: Jon Gardiner for PRC.

Attention must be paid to PlayMakers’ ASSASSINS. L to R: Jeffrey Meanza as Charles Guiteau, Maren Searle as Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, Gregory DeCandia as Leon Czolgosz and Joseph Medeiros as Guiseppe Zangara. Photo: Jon Gardiner for PRC.

Musicals aren’t my first favorite form of theatre, and probably won’t ever be, but PlayMakers Repertory Company has been steadily eroding my prejudices with the seductive pleasures of its annual large-cast musical productions. Assassins, this year’s blow-out (through April 20), happens to also be a ferociously comic consideration of American gun culture, where the assassin or would-be assassin of a President gains the summit of social and historical notoriety. For PlayMakers, it continues the theatrical exploration begun in January, with the PRC-commissioned The Story of the Gun by Mike Daisey. The Stephen Sondheim/John Weidman musical Assassins, directed here by Mike Donahue, first played in 1990, and in some ways the show’s killers seem almost quaint–hapless and endearing, even–compared to today’s suicide bombers. In other ways, the show seems au courant, as when Jeffrey Blair Cornell as Sam Byck talks about flying a 747 into the White House to kill Dick Nixon. The script is rich with 20th century social, political and artistic references (e.g. Death of a Salesman) and may mean the most to people who already have some familiarity with a few 20th century Presidents and the assorted characters who took up guns to kill them, but you needn’t know a thing to have a good time.

Non-linear space-time in PRC's ASSASSINS: Patrick Mchugh as Lee Harvey Oswald (L) AND Danny Binstock as John Wilkes Booth. Photo: Jon Gardiner for PRC.

Non-linear space-time in PRC’s ASSASSINS: Patrick McHugh as Lee Harvey Oswald (L) and Danny Binstock as John Wilkes Booth. Photo: Jon Gardiner for PRC.

Assassins foregoes a straightforward storyline in favor of a collection of robust vignettes and songs  that collectively make a potent stew of satire, cynicism, pity and politics, floating in a gravy of dark humor. It foregoes the constraints of linear time altogether, freely bringing together people of different eras–John Wilkes Booth appears before Lee Harvey Oswald, for instance. The characters and stories are provoked, tempted, drawn on and catered to by the Balladeer (Spencer Moses) and the Proprietor, played by Ray Dooley. Dooley has not been onstage enough this season, and it’s wonderful to see him do his magic, imbuing his very footsteps with menace. His smile as he offers guns guns guns glitters with Mephistophelean knowledge. I had never seen a production of this show previously, and was skeptical that this stuff would really be funny–but I laughed often and loudly, between chills.

Maren Searle (L) as Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme and Julie Fishell as Sara Jane Moore in PlayMakers ASSASSINS. Photo: Jon Gardiner for PRC.

Maren Searle (L) as Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme and Julie Fishell as Sara Jane Moore in PlayMakers ASSASSINS. Photo: Jon Gardiner for PRC.

Julie Fishell is hilarious as Sara Jane Moore, who tried, sort of, to assassinate President Gerald Ford, and she and Maren Searle as Squeaky Fromme are priceless together. Jeffrey Blair Cornell channels Al Pacino and gives a fantastic performance as Sam Byck, a once-employed and self-respecting man, now an out-of-work Santa who just can’t see anything else to do besides try to kill the President. When we first see him, he’s wearing his Santa suit and a 3-day beard. He strips off his jacket to reveal a singleton undershirt and sits down with his lunch and a tape recorder to record a rambling letter to Lenny Bernstein, his hero, before he heads of to commandeer that 747.

Even he is upstaged by Jeffrey Meanza, who steals the show each time he appears as Charles Guiteau, the charming crazy con man who killed President Garfield. Meanza, whose day job is as assistant artistic director of PlayMakers, sings and carries on to beat the band, and his dancing! Choreographer Casey Sams has him skipping and bowing all over the stage in a charming and most amusing fashion. That band is pretty hard to beat, too. Mark Hartman on piano leads another nine musicians as the brass-rich group plays throughout the show far upstage in Rachel Hauck’s dark and flashy set that combines carnival, cabaret and Manganyar Seduction.

Assassins has a great tag line from itself: “Everybody pays attention when you’ve got a gun.” No doubt about it.

L to R: Julie Fishell as Sara Jane Moore, Danny Binstock as John Wilkes Booth, Jeffrey Meanza as Charles Guiteau and Gregory DeCandia as Leon Czolgosz, in PRC's ASSASSINS. Photo: Jon Gardiner for PRC.

L to R: Julie Fishell as Sara Jane Moore, Danny Binstock as John Wilkes Booth, Jeffrey Meanza as Charles Guiteau and Gregory DeCandia as Leon Czolgosz, in PRC’s ASSASSINS. Photo: Jon Gardiner for PRC.

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