The great thing about My Fair Lady is Pygmalion--the smash hit from 1914 that established George Bernard Shaw as England's premier playwright of the era. Lerner and Loewe's musical adaptation of that stageplay, while not quite hardcore Shaw, is saucy and intelligent, and the Boulder Dinner Theatre's bright production treats it that way.
Unlike modern-day media manipulators, Lerner and Loewe didn't try to turn horror stories or film noir of the Sunset Boulevard ilk into song and dance. They gave us some sense of proportion--and a Lady that doesn't need special effects to draw her audience in.
The story concerns a linguist who gathers dialects in the streets of London and a poor flower seller who comes to him for elocution lessons. Professor Higgins bets his friend Colonel Pickering that he can turn this "guttersnipe" into a lady in six months and pass her off as a duchess at a grand ball. As the long lessons begin, Eliza Doolittle is pacified by chocolates, nice clothes, and rides in taxis whenever she balks at the boredom. But over that six months she undergoes another transformation--her eyes are opened to the distinctions of class.
On the very night of the great ball, Eliza realizes that, while no longer fit for the gutter, she has no better prospects for a career--and no proper sympathy from her two teachers. Higgins and Pickering, lost in self-congratulation, neglect even to praise her for her accomplishment. So Eliza chucks Higgins's slippers at him, tells him off and runs away from home. The professor has to do plenty of homework to get her back--a musical-comedy ending just a trifle less unabashedly romantic than is common in the genre.
Shelly Cox-Robie projects a winning innocence--both sexual and intellectual--as Eliza, and innocence is never easy to portray. Wayne Kennedy's brusque Henry Higgins is a glorious egomaniac with a heart of gold; he makes a likely match for a budding mind just discovering a broader world. Kennedy understands how to project a life of intellectual obsession, and he makes us believe that even so childish a brainiac can effectively do battle with his oversized ego.
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Jan Waterman as Higgins's motherly housekeeper, Mrs. Pearce, brings a realistic emotional weight to the scenes in the Higgins household, and Bren. Eyestone and Brian Norber catch the eye and keep it in a variety of small comic roles. But A.K. Klimpke, always a clever character actor, overdoes Alfred P. Doolittle a tad; Eliza's dustman dad, a drunk with an answer for every objection, is funnier when played with a slightly drier wit. And Bob Gadpaille, who was such a great lech earlier this year in the BDT's Grand Hotel, seems a little uncomfortable in the role of the well-mannered Pickering. He needs to be more at ease with all this upper-class British nonsense.
The show is cleverly staged at every turn by director Ross Haley on Donna Clement's charming, ingenious set (the only thing that mars it is an omnipresent streetlamp that frequently blocks a view of the actors). Scott Beyette's choreography makes the dance numbers sparkle, and the whole-theater approach, rather daring in a dinner theater since the actors must run up and down the aisles, gives the audience a giddy sensation of participation without any of the embarrassment.
Shaw liked to set Nature against Culture and let them fight it out. It may seem patronizing today, but Shaw thought the male intellect no match for the female "life force," and many of his best characters are women with a purpose. They're always intelligent, if unschooled, and they understand things far better than do their overeducated counterparts. And insofar as Lerner and Loewe's musical reflects its source, it offers something more than most musicals, modern or otherwise: a little more depth than is usual in the portrayal of the gender fray, along with some small sense of working-class suffering and the upper-class indifference that made it all possible.
My Fair Lady, through October 27 at the Boulder Dinner Theatre, 5501 Arapahoe Avenue, Boulder, 449-6000.