Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay
In the house where I grew up, we had the original Broadway cast album, which features an Al Hirschfeld caricature of Rex Harrison as Henry Higgins gleefully manipulating a caricature marionette of Julie Andrews as Eliza Doolittlewhile simultaneously being manipulated himself by a God-like caricature of Shaw who, winged, looks down from a cloud. I always found the image a little twisted and frightening and, if it weren't for brilliant songs and biting satire, I'd probably feel the same about the musical, currently playing in a mostly excellent production at Santa Rosa's 6th Street Playhouse.
When Higgins first encounters impoverished flower girl Eliza, he dismisses her as something almost sub-human, suitable only as a subject for his linguistic studies. And for 95% of the show his opinion doesn't really change. Once he decides to take her on as a pupilmostly at the goading of new-found friend Colonel Pickering, who accepts Higgins's outrageous wager that he can pass her off at Buckingham Palace as a high-born ladyhe works poor Eliza incessantly, at one point denying her food and sleep until she finally learns to correctly pronounce her vowels. Today the story would warrant an hour on "20/20": "Tonight, the tragic tale of an impoverished street vendor held prisoner for months in a millionaire's mansion and emotionally abusedall to settle a bet."
A compelling story indeed, and lovingly staged by 6th Street Playhouse's artistic director Craig A. Miller. Though the orchestra (hidden behind lattice in Jesse Dreikosen's flexible but jejune set) needs to tighten up, and the chorus is generally weak and has trouble finding the right harmonic balance (especially the men), there are far more top-notch elements to the show to recommend it to North Bay audiences.
Most deserving of praise is Joseph Favalora, whose imaginative and clever choreography never disappoints. From a delightful tableau in "Wouldn't It Be Loverly," where he has the chorus close the number by creating a physical representation of the solid roof and enormous chair of Eliza's dreams, to the Latin-flavored steps to accompany "The Rain in Spain," Favalora's work here is simply marvelous. He deserves many more (and bigger) opportunities to practice his craft. Kudos also to costume designer Tracey Hinman, who met the enormous task of creating dozens of dresses, suits, hats, waistcoats, and more with tremendous flair and style. The lower classes are outfitted in tweeds and twills in earthy browns, beiges, and greens, while the swells sport about in silks and satins in black, white, and various shades of grey. In both instances, main characters also get splashes of color.
As performances go, two husband and wife teams bring terrific talent and zeal to the 6th Street stage. Shirley Nilsen Hall's Mrs. Higgins (Henry's very proper mother) brings just the right mixture of snootiness and heart to the role. She is outdone, however, by husband Norman A. Hall, whose fantastic turn as Eliza's ne'er-do-well father Alfred Doolittle is a highlight of the production. The joy and comic flair he showed so well in Ross Valley Players' The Pirates of Penzance as Major-General Stanley is on full display here. Every time he takes the stage, the audience sits up a little straighter in their seats, knowing the best comedy of the night is on its way.
David Yen and Denise Elia-Yen pair up as Henry and Eliza. Their onstage chemistry reflects their marital familiaritythough one wonders if David Yen takes too much pleasure in the haughty dismissiveness with which his character treats Eliza. Their first scene together is a little slow, but by the time Eliza moves in with Higgins, they jam down the throttle and it's off to the races.
Though not a perfect production, 6th Street's My Fair Lady has so much going for itnot the least of which is a terrifically funny book and one great song after anotherthat you owe it to yourself to get to Santa Rosa and support this marvelous show.
My Fair Lady runs through June 5, 2016, in the G.K. Hardt Theater at the 6th Street Playhouse, 52 West 6th Street, Santa Rosa. Shows are Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m., and Saturdays and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. Tickets are $37 general admission, $32 seniors and youth Friday and Saturday nights and Sunday matinees, and $30 general, $25 for seniors and youth on Thursdays and Saturday matinees. Tickets are available online at www.6thStreetPlayhouse.com, by calling the box office at (707) 523-4185 or during open Box Office hours.