Arts and Entertainment

Theater review: Stripped-down production highlights strong performances in 'My Fair Lady'

The Anchorage Concert Association's production of "My Fair Lady" is both stripped-down and elegant, restrained and opulent. Presented with a minimum of sets and a maximum of heart, it reminds viewers that a truly great musical doesn't need Broadway flash and spectacle in order to succeed.

It took just 20 actors and nine musicians to enchant a crowd of about 1,100 on opening night at the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts. The ACA produced the musical through Plan-B Entertainment, a company that cast and rehearsed in Los Angeles and brought the production north.

"My Fair Lady" requires strong actors to portray its strong-willed characters. As phonetics expert Henry Higgins, British actor Maxwell Caulfield commands every scene he's in yet somehow never upstages his colleagues. Poised and polished, he plays the overbearing and self-centered Higgins as a man who's not deliberately cruel, just a typical member of his class and his era.

Eliza Doolittle, the Cockney flower girl he tries to turn into an upper-class lady, is a delicious role for any actor who understands that Eliza is no caricature. She may start out as the clay Higgins fancies he can mold to his will but she ultimately rejects the sculptor's vision to develop her own.

Jodie Lotz hams it up a bit too much in her early scenes as Eliza, especially with regard to her singing. Some of the lyrics in "Wouldn't It Be Loverly" and "Just You Wait" were overshadowed or outright obscured by pantomime-worthy body language and a bit too much of the caterwauling that Higgins criticized. Her broad gestures and exaggerated expressions were suited more to a sitcom than a beloved musical.

Yet her transformation into the new Eliza saved the performance. Suddenly her fine singing voice was true and clear and her characterizations much more subtle -- and at the same time much more open. Lotz turned Eliza from a prickly, buffoonish working girl into a joyous young woman just beginning to realize her own potential. Her rhapsodic "I Could Have Danced all Night" won over the audience completely.

The Lerner and Loewe adaptation of George Bernard Shaw's "Pygmalion" is rife with casual misogyny that sounds jarring to modern ears. Look past the disdain and the bullying, however, and you'll appreciate Shaw's satire of the British class system. The rich don't care about people like Eliza; they may not even see her as truly human. Yet once she learns to dress, talk and behave like the upper class, doors open wide.

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Similarly, Henry Higgins looks down on women for what he sees as their feckless, foolish natures. It never occurs to him that some women would gladly accept education and opportunities beyond scrubbing floors and selling flowers.

Higgins has never had to face the possibility that he might not get what he believes he is owed as a white, upper-class British male. When the one thing he thought he'd never want -- a woman -- invades his thoughts, he's genuinely bewildered.

As he sings "I've Grown Accustomed To Her Face," dejection in his posture and a wistful attempt at defiance in his voice, Caulfield gives the audience a peek at the human being inside the insufferable facade. He realizes the depth of his need just as Eliza comes to understand her own worth, which allows her to walk away.

The supporting cast was excellent, in particular the doughty, harrumphing Col. Pickering (Joey D'Auria) and the cheerfully amoral Alfred Doolittle (Kurt Andrew Hansen). While tenor Matthew Malecki had only a couple of scenes as the lovestruck Freddy Eysnford-Hill he had the best voice of the night, nearly stopping the show with his gorgeous "On The Street Where You Live."

The sets were lovely but simple -- a few pieces of furniture and painted backdrops suggesting a Covent Garden street scene or the Higgins library. A grand ballroom was suggested with a few columns, a trio of chandeliers and some artfully hung draperies. The simplicity made for lightning-fast scene changes and also left the focus where it belonged: on the hard-working actors.

Donna Freedman, a former Anchorage Daily News reporter and reviewer, is a staff writer at Money Talks News and blogs at DonnaFreedman.com.

MY FAIR LADY continues through Sunday, Oct. 25, at the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts. Show times are 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $54.75 to $96, available at Centertix. (263-ARTS)

Donna Freedman

Freelance writer Donna Freedman is a veteran Alaska journalist who has written for the Anchorage Daily News and many other publications. She blogs about money and midlife at DonnaFreedman.com.

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