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The North Carolina Theatre will kick off its 2004 season tomorrow night [1/31] with a gala presentation of Lerner and Loewe's magnificent 1956 Broadway musical My Fair Lady, directed by David Bennett and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw. The show stars Broadway and Off-Broadway veteran David Staller as Professor Henry Higgins and rising Broadway star Elena Shaddow as Covent Garden flower girl Eliza Doolittle.
Henry Higgins is a world-renowned professor of phonetics, who specializes in dialects, and a confirmed middle-aged bachelor. Eliza Doolittle is a feisty little guttersnipe in her twenties, dressed in filthy rags, with a Cockney accent so thick that Higgins makes a wager with his associate, Colonel Pickering (Sean G. Griffin), that he can not only teach Eliza proper English, but pass her off as a "lady" at an embassy ball! This as unlikely a romance as ever blossomed on the legitimate stage. (Indeed, having Henry and Eliza fall in love was a new wrinkle that Alan Jay Lerner added to George Bernard Shaw's classic comedy.)
David Bennett, who is making his NCT directorial debut with My Fair Lady, is A New York director who is getting his second chance in 12 months to direct one of the choicest nuggets from the Golden Age of Musicals. (He previously staged My Fair Lady for the 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle last February.)
"The NCT production is not a copy of my previous production," Bennett insists. "What makes theater so wonderful is this particular combination of artists and technicians putting this production together. Some moments may be similar, but they are very much about these particular actors and this production."
He adds, "The biggest lesson that I learned from directing the show before is that we can trust the piece completely: the text, the music." After all, he says, My Fair Lady features wonderfully witty dialogue by Irish-born British author George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) and a splendid score by American playwright and lyricist Alan Jay Lerner (1918-86) and Vienna-born American Frederick Loewe (1904-88).
"We don't need to fix anything or try to make something better," claims David Bennett. "I don't need to put a concept on [My Fair Lady] to make it better. But approaching a story that most of the audience is familiar with, I want to make it immediate and engaging to the audience, so they forget what's coming next … and experience the story [again] for the first time."
He adds, "We have an amazing cast made up of Broadway actors and also wonderful local performers from right here in North Carolina. This production has been put together especially for this audience right here in Raleigh."
Besides David Staller, Elena Shaddow, and Sean Griffin, the stellar NCT cast includes Robert Lydiard as Eliza's drunken father, the natural philosopher Alfred Doolittle; James Donegan as Eliza's wealthy upper-crust suitor, boyish Freddy Eynsford-Hill; Viki Boyle as Higgins' housekeeper, Mrs. Pearce; and Donna Wandrey as Higgins' disapproving mother, Mrs. Higgins.
Bennett says, "David Staller has played Higgins before; he does a lot of Shavian drama and comedy. Our Colonel Pickering, Sean Griffin, lives in Seattle and played Pickering in my 5th Avenue Theatre production last February. He has done a lot of Broadway shows. He's a very accomplished actor.
"Our Eliza, Elena Shaddow, is only in her twenties; and she's already been in three Broadway shows [i.e., Nine with Antonio Banderas and Chita Rivera, Sweet Smell of Success with John Lithgow, and Les Misérables]. She's an actress really coming into her own at this point. It's amazing to watch her become Eliza during rehearsals. That's what excites me most about this part production is this wonderful combination. It's wonderful to collaborate with such great artists."
My Fair Lady, with book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner and music by Frederick Loewe, is the musical adaptation of George Bernard Shaw's comedy Pygmalion, which opened on Broadway on Oct. 12, 1914 and ran for 72 performances, and producer Gabriel Pascal's 1938 British motion picture Pygmalion, which was adapted for the sliver screen by Shaw, directed by Anthony Asquith and Leslie Howard, and starred Howard and Wendy Hiller.
Shaw's Pygmalion is a modern retelling of the ancient Greek myth — now set in London in 1912, instead of Cyprus in ancient times. The title character of the myth was the King of Cyprus and a sculptor. He created the perfect woman in stone, named her Galatea, and then fell in love with his creation. After Galatea was magically brought to life by divine intervention, the two live happily ever after.
My Fair Lady made its Broadway debut at the Mark Hellinger Theatre on March 15, 1956 and ran for 2,717 performances, finally closing on Sept. 29, 1962. It earned 10 1957 Tony Award® nominations and won six Tonys, including the awards for Best Musical, Best Director (Moss Hart), and Best Actor, Musical (Rex Harrison). (Note: Harrison's co-star, Julie Andrews, received a Tony nomination for Best Actress, Musical.)
The New York Drama Critics Circle also named My Fair Lady "outstanding musical of the year," in large part due to the superlative Lerner and Loewe score includes "I Could Have Danced All Night," "The Rain in Spain," "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face," "Wouldn't It Be Loverly?" and "Get Me to the Church on Time."
The perennially popular 1964 motion-picture version of My Fair Lady, directed by George Cukor and starring Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn, received 12 1965 Academy Award nominations and won eight Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor honors.
Bennett says what most attracts him to My Fair Lady is the story of transformation. In modern Reality-TV parlance, it might be called the world's first Extreme Makeover!
"On a rational, emotional, and even spiritual level," Bennett says, "I am attracted to the transformation that Eliza goes through — and also Higgins — and how these people transform themselves and all the people around them. That's sort of transformation is powerful and resonates."
Staging My Fair Lady at Raleigh Memorial Auditorium presents considerable challenges to director David Bennett, choreographer Casey Nicholaw, and a creative team that includes assistant director Casey Kessler, musical director/conductor McCrae Hardy, lighting designer Craig Stelzenmuller, costumer/wardrobe supervisor Denise Schumaker, sound designer Jonathan Parke, dialect coach Chris Morris, and props master Bob Uzabel. (The set and costumes were originally designed and built for California's Fullerton Civic Light Opera.)
"My Fair Lady is a big show," Bennett says. "It's a big production, with these very full dance numbers in them. That's always challenging. We have an amazing cast, and the ensemble is extremely strong.
"As a director," he explains, "my focus is on the spine of the story, which is Eliza's transformation.... I'm trying to make sure that I bring out the emotional truth on those two central characters and the people that directly relate to them."
Bennett says, "We haven't teched the show yet; we'll see how it turns out. But I think the audience will enjoy the spectacle that is My Fair Lady, the set and the costumes.... There are three distinct worlds in the play. There is the low, earthy Cockney world, which is a very sensual world of drink, food, and singing and dancing. Then we have the upper-class world of the people at Ascot, which has a precision and a cold beauty to it. Then we have this middle world, which is the world of Professor Higgins' study, which is place where Higgins and the other people of that world come to believe that they can move somebody from the lower-class world to the upper-class world. So, the design elements reflect and enhance that."
David Bennett confesses, "I came to musicals later in life. My main interest was in plays.
"It wasn't until about eight years ago," he says, "that I started working on musicals. I have no recollection about seeing the movie [of My Fair Lady] as a child."
Bennett adds, "I'm looking for a way to honor the movie and the other productions they have seen, but I'm looking at the story anew. I invite the audience to experience it anew. I honor the fond memories that people have, but I invite them to come and experience the story all over again with people who have not seen it before."
The North Carolina Theatre presents My Fair Lady Saturday, Jan. 31, at 8 p.m.; Sunday, Feb. 1, at 2 p.m.; Tuesday-Friday, Feb. 3-6, at 8 p.m.; Saturday, Feb. 7, at 2 and 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Feb. 8, at 2 and 7 p.m. in Raleigh Memorial Auditorium in the BTI Center for the Performing Arts, 1 E. South St., Raleigh, North Carolina. $20-$60. NCT Box Office: 919/831-6950. Ticketmaster: 919/834-4000 or http://www.ticketmaster.com/venueartist/115203/844904. North Carolina Theatre: http://www.nctheatre.com/showsandtickets.html#myfairlady [inactive 9/04]. Internet Broadway Database (1956 Broadway Debut): http://www.ibdb.com/production.asp?ID=2407. Internet Movie Database (1964 Film): http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0058385/.