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THEATER REVIEW: An understudy-laced “My Fair Lady” at Proctors

Laird Mackintosh as Higgins and Shereen Ahmed as Eliza in My Fair Lady at the Proctors Theatre. Photo: Joan Marcus

my beautiful lady
Proctor’s Theatre, Schenectady, New York
Book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner, music by Frederick Loewe
Based on the play “Pygmalion” by George Bernard Shaw
Directed by Bartlett Sher

“I’ve gotten used to her face…”

It’s hard to believe there’s anyone else who hasn’t been unmasked “My Fair Lady.” Certainly many more people have seen it in some form than have ever seen the George Bernard Shaw play on which it is based. Way back in 1956, when I was still learning what musical theater was about, I left mid-act during the original Broadaway production, angry at what I considered to be a misuse of the Shaw original I was reading had read. I was 10 years old.

When I was directing at Camp Silbert in the Catskills in 1961, I had seen it again and revised my opinion of the work, recognizing its brilliance. It’s that excellence – the work itself – that has kept the show alive all these years and that brings this latest version to life on its nationwide tour, now at the Proctors Theater in Schenectady, New York. The major downside to this presentation is that four main characters were played by understudy on opening night: Eliza Doolittle, Henry Higgins, Colonel Pickering, and Freddy Eynsford-Hill, the four characters the play revolves around.

Sam Simahk as Freddy Eynsford-Hill in My Fair Lady at Proctors. Photo: Joan Marcus

The success of this production is mainly due to the physical production and its only real star – the orchestra under the musical direction of Ted Sperling. What true life or vibrancy existed came from the orchestra pit as the show’s eight musicians generated energy, melody and emotion. The only other real panache came from the character of Alfred P. Doolittle, Eliza’s father, played with seriousness by Martin Fisher. Unfortunately, this is the only time I’ve played this character without any of the charm it takes to redeem Doolittle, a pretty worthless drunk whose personal philosophy gets him into financial trouble. Fisher has a notable bass voice, but there was no joy in his character.

The other thing that saves this production is its physical-technical work: brilliant sets by Michael Yeargan, costumes by Catherine Zuber, lighting by Donald Holder, sound by Marc Salzberg, and stage management by Donald Dolan. The show lasts just under three hours and the work of Dolan and co. keeps things interesting and delightful.

Instead of Laird Mackintosh, we saw Wade McCollum as Henry; instead of Shereen Ahmed, we had Sharon Quinn Taylor as Eliza; instead of Kevin Pariseau we had Patrick Kerr as Pickering and instead of Sam Simahk we had George Psomas as Freddy. These replacements did the job commendably, but generated little or no excitement. I had heard great things about Ahmed in advance and I really regret not having seen them. Taylor did a good job, but there was more technical accomplishment than real fire or enthusiasm.

For example, “The Rain in Spain” is usually a climax of the first act, and all three replacements seemed or felt like they had to get through the number to get to the next part. The next thing is “I Could Have Danced All Night” which was flat for me because I haven’t seen, heard and felt any enthusiasm from Taylor and all three have to be part of what’s happening with Eliza in that moment. It just seemed like a transition to another moment ahead.

Shereen Ahmed as Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady at Proctors. Photo: Joan Marcus

I’ve never seen a show where the entire main cast was missing before, and I wonder if perhaps this situation was also demoralizing for the rest of the troupe, who worked through their musical numbers and scenes as prescribed but brought little to the stage , which could be called memorable. The company’s best work came in “Ascot Gavotte,” which surrounded the only scene that drew laughs. The Embassy Waltz, which opens Act Two, was beautifully done, directed by Christopher Galli. Usually, Higgins’ murmured diction gets some good laughs, but the audience was silent and unresponsive when playing poorly in McCollum’s hands and Taylor’s mouth. Just another example of how the show suffered on Tuesday night.

Leslie Alexander was an excellent Mrs. Higgins who made the most of her few scenes. Gayton Scott was a colder Mrs. Pearce than usual, but the interpretation worked to the character’s advantage. Lee Zarrett did well as Zoltan Karpathy, and the Prince of Transylvania, who is not credited in the programme, did very well in his romantic moments in Act Two.

The two songs I love most in this score are “Show Me” and “Without You” which Ms. Taylor sang well, but the fire she displayed in those songs and the scenes that followed was ultimately captured by blown away in the most peculiar direction, or acting, the final moment of the play where Eliza usually decides her future. That never happened in Schenectady. Taylor just walked down the stage and off, leaving McCollums Higgins without any determination whatsoever. I don’t know who was responsible for this, but it seemed to annoy the audience as much as it did me. The act ended unsatisfactorily with applause at the ensuing blackout. All I can say is, “Too bad!” It’s like my 10-year-old self’s opinion is correct.

My Fair Lady is playing at Proctors, 432 State Street, Schenectady, New York through May 21. Visit the Proctors website or call 518-346-6204 for information and tickets.

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