- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 4, 2006

The fall season has been hard on the musical. At Arena, the sophisticated smarm of “Cabaret” has been reduced to smeared greasepaint and tired drag queens, and now at Signature, a working girl’s version of “My Fair Lady” has all the effervescence of stale Schlitz.

Daylight-saving time hasn’t yet ended, and already we’re plunged into darkness.

Signature artistic director Eric Schaeffer has stripped the romantic Lerner and Loewe musical right down to its grubby underthings. The orchestra consists of two pianists; the cast — clad in costume designer Jenn Miller’s corsets, slips, undershirts and trousers that borrow heavily from Madonna’s “Blond Ambition” tour — has been reduced from 44 to 19. Continuing the shades-of-gray theme are the ironwork, exposed pipes and sooty edifices of James Kronzer’s fogbound set, which puts you so much in mind of “Sweeney Todd” that in the scene where Eliza Doolittle (Sally Murphy) visits her old Covent Garden haunts in the middle of the night, you fear the Demon Barber of Fleet Street is skulking around a pillar.

The idea of having the ensemble morphing from the loose-moraled denizens of lower-class London to snooty high-hats with the simple addition of elaborate accessories is intriguing, but to then have everyone in the “Ascot Gavotte” scene and elsewhere bumping and grinding in what appear to be peepshow booths just makes the whole thing tawdry. This “My Fair Lady” isn’t about linguistics, it’s about lust — the nasty, craven kind that is exploitative and takes place in the shadows.

Poor Eliza Doolittle, the Cockney flower seller, is changed into a proper lady by professor Henry Higgins (Andrew Long). Instead of being plucky and adorably stubborn-minded, she’s a victim — beaten and sold by her father to Higgins for five pounds and then further abused and subjugated by the professor. A faintly incestuous air surrounds the relationships older men have with Eliza, and that includes the relatively respectful Colonel Pickering (Harry A. Winter).

Even the normally exultant “I Could Have Danced All Night” is staged in the dark, with Eliza writhing in a chair like a Bob Fosse dancer hopped up on aphrodisiacs, conveying her newly warm feelings for professor Higgins by running her hands over her body.

However, you can see the attraction, since Mr. Long portrays the professor as lordly and insufferably condescending, but with hints of a frisky, almost kinky side. As proven in last year’s production of “Oliver!” at Olney, Mr. Long has an admirable singing voice, and you wish he could cut loose a little more than the mostly talking songs demand.

It’s almost a relief when Eliza takes up with the idle, boyish aristocrat Freddy Eynsford-Hill (Will Gartshore, whose exuberantly besotted “On the Street Where You Live” is the show’s highlight), although Higgins sneers that eventually Freddy will take advantage of Eliza’s diligent nature.

This hard tack means that there’s nothing remotely enchanting about Eliza’s transformation, even though it means she will not be as harshly judged for her speech and bearing. It just seems like she is trading in one prison for another, and the sexual predators that appear to have stalked Eliza all her life will continue, only this time they are well-spoken and better dressed.

Miss Murphy has a lovely voice, but it doesn’t leave a strong impression, and throughout most of the production she appears tortured and miserable. In the embassy ball scene, meant to show Eliza’s transformation from touchy young girl to confident woman, she comes off as robotic and remote. But who could look like a princess saddled with a gown that looks alternately like a strip mall prom dress or a set of balloon drapes?

The sordid approach works beautifully in the scenes involving the liquored up, mercenary world of Eliza’s father, Alfred P. Doolittle (Terrence P. Currier). The 50-plus Mr. Currier is nimble as a chorus boy, tap-dancing and gracefully lurching about in his robust portrayal of the unrepentant sot. “Get Me to the Church on Time” and “A Little Bit of Luck” are jubilant tributes to the roistering life, with Mr. Currier skillfully aided by the stomping, hollering ensemble.

Class differences, Britain’s exacting caste system, and the notion that beneath every socialite lurks a guttersnipe are the prevailing motifs in Mr. Schaeffer’s twisted, darkly sexual vision of “My Fair Lady.” Arresting moments do exist in the production, along with some excellent performances, but overall the concept crushes the musical’s spirit.

**

WHAT: “My Fair Lady” by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe

WHERE: Signature Theatre, 3806 S. Four Mile Run Drive, Arlington

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays; 8 p.m., Thursdays through Saturdays; 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays, selected Saturday matinees at 2 p.m. Through Nov. 19.

TICKETS: $37 to $63

PHONE: 800/955-5566

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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