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Classy Lady 

NCRT's new musical is more than fair

The 1956 Broadway production of My Fair Lady, written by Lerner and Loewe, with legendary director Moss Hart and costumes by Cecil Beaton, won lots of theatre awards. But it was a national phenomenon in ways that can never happen anymore, regardless of how much money Broadway blockbusters now collect. Its stars (especially Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews) became staples on the three television networks' variety shows; its songs became radio hits. The original cast album was the second biggest seller of 1956, and No. 1 in 1957. A cover version of "On the Street Where You Live" was a top-40 single when "Hound Dog" led the charts. In subsequent years when Frank Sinatra, Perry Como, Eddie Fisher, Nat King Cole, Dinah Shore and Rosemary Clooney each had TV shows, they all sang and recorded songs from My Fair Lady.

So it was that these songs ("I Could Have Danced All Night," "I've Become Accustomed to Her Face," etc.) were imprinted on my childhood, even if I was impatiently enduring them, waiting for the next comedian on Steve Allen or Ed Sullivan. Such American as well as Broadway standards are probably still at least vaguely familiar melodies, but today's audiences have the opportunity to experience My Fair Lady afresh.

There are hints of their recorded forbears in the current North Coast Repertory Theatre production: a little Rex Harrison in some of Michael Thomas' Henry Higgins scenes, a touch of Julie Andrews in Caitlin McMurtry's Eliza Doolittle, even some Jeremy Brett tremolo in Kristopher Buihner's young Freddy, Eliza's callow suitor. But mostly they make this show their own. Thomas brings out Higgins' irony, and McMurtry has such glowing energy that she seemed ready to burst the confines of the set as she brings new life and reality to "I Could Have Danced All Night."

In the story, lightly adapted from G. B. Shaw's play Pygmalion, Professor Henry Higgins and his friend Colonel Pickering pick up a lower-class flower seller, and through linguistic training convince upper-class Europeans that she's one of them. As Pickering, Jim Berry has the delightful advantage of being English, as well as an amusing and convincing actor. His wife Isobel Berry did wonderful work as dialect coach, especially with Catlin McMurtry, who had to learn two classes of British accents. This was just one aspect of her scintillating vocal and acting performance.

The style and care in the set (Daniel Lawrence) and the costumes (designer Marcia Hutson and a host of milliners responsible for those fantastic hats) are remarkable. With musical direction by Molly Severdia and David Powell, there's fine ensemble singing. Director Rene Grinnell pulled it all together. But attention must be paid to that fabulous song and dance man, Bob Wells. From his opening number ("With A Little Bit of Luck") his performance as Eliza's father was astonishing. It did better than stop the show -- it energized it forward. My Fair Lady is a solid NCRT production, with the kind of shining moments that make live theatre unique and necessary.

There's more Shaw in My Fair Lady than you might expect in a musical adaptation. A lot of lines -- especially in the early scenes --are straight out of Pygmalion, together with what Shaw wrote for the 1938 movie version. Apart from the still-infectious songs, the chief difference is the ending, which is left open in the musical, favoring the idea that Eliza remains with Higgins. Shaw opposed this. He wrote a prose coda for the play in which Eliza stays friends with Higgins and Pickering, but she marries Freddy and they open a flower shop together, which prospers in part because of an encounter with H.G. Wells. Very Shavian.

My Fair Lady plays weekends at NCRT in Eureka through Feb. 26.


Coming Up

Dell'Arte International first-year students present an evening of Commedia with "lovers, thieves, irate fathers, non-stop talkers, posers, zanies and charlatans" this weekend, Thursday through Saturday (Feb. 3-5) at 8 p.m. in the Carlo.

Thursday Feb. 10, Redwood Curtain opens its 2011 season in Eureka with a world premiere: The Lawn, a new comedy by Los Angeles-based playwright Cody Henderson, directed by Dell'Arte's Michael Fields. Described as an irreverent take on 1950s suburbia, it features local all-stars Donald Forrest, Lynnie Horrigan, Clint Rebik and Christina Jioras, as well as newcomers Barney Baggett and Molly Armstrong. After two nights of previews, the playwright will be there for the festivities on Saturday, the official opening night.

On Friday, Feb. 11, Ferndale Repertory opens Peter Shaffer's Amadeus, a play with elements of drama, intrigue and comedy which speculates on the rivalry between court composer Antonio Salieri and the impetuous genius, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The Ferndale Rep's production features Kyle Ryan as Mozart, Craig Benson as Salieri, and Kyra Gardner as Mozart's wife Constanze. Karma Ibsen is guest director.

North Coast Preparatory and Performing Arts Academy presents its annual senior/junior class production Wednesday, Feb. 9 through Saturday, Feb. 12, at 7:30 p.m. in HSU's Gist Hall. Director Jean Bazemore and the students have drawn elements from The Marriage of Figaro, Les Miserables and Burning Patience, a tribute to the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda by playwright Antonio Skarmeta for a new piece called Shattering Silence. For information or reservations call Eve at 822-1670.

At least one other show may be opening that weekend, though I have no information. Let me repeat: If you want anything about your show to appear in this column, you need to inform directly.

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