The potential for disaster was in evidence aplenty on opening night of Richard Chamberlain’s L.A. debut as George Bernard Shaw’s quintessential misanthrope, Professor Henry Higgins: the female lead role of Eliza Doolittle is being performed by the understudy (Meg Tolin), the sound system is gratingly tinny and inconsistent, the orchestra is out-of-tune, and the ensemble plows through the dialogue of the first act as if they just can’t wait to get to the next tune.
Yet, by evening’s end, Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s musical tale of the unkempt and unlearned Cockney flower girl, who is transformed into a fine lady by the elocution taskmaster Higgins, once again proves that “My Fair Lady,” with its inspired melding of book and song, just might be the perfect musical.
Chamberlain exudes the proper patrician presence and vocal dexterity of the professor, but his accent suffers occasional lapses in his rush to be witty and debonair. A more melodic Higgins than the role’s originator, Rex Harrison, Chamberlain has everything in sync with his poignant rendering of the second act finale, “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face.”
Tolin (subbing for Melissa Errico) can certainly deliver a song with style. Her spirited and lighthearted “I Could Have Danced All Night” is the highlight of the first act. She is defeated, though, by her accent, which sounds more Valley girl than cockney. She improves considerably in the second act, when called to perform a more mid-Atlantic speech pattern.
Director Howard Davies moves things along at a brisk pace, seamlessly segueing between scenes, aided by Ralph Koltai’s impressionistic modular scenic design and Donald Saddler’s minimalist choreography, but hindered by Peter J. Fitzgerald’s low-fidelity sound design.
Unfortunately, what gets lost through much of the first act is Shaw’s wonderfully combative dialogue.
This is particularly unfortunate in the delicious confrontation between Higgins and Eliza’s uniquely amoral father, Alfred P. Doolittle, played with impish charm by Julian Holloway.
Holloway is the son of Stanley Holloway, who created the role.
By the second act, all technical problems (except for the intonation of the orchestra’s violin section) and opening-night jitters are resolved.
Chamberlain and Paxton Whitehead, as Higgins’ friend Colonel Pickering, sail through those marvelously chauvinistic ditties, “You Did It” and “Hymn to Him.”
And choreographer Saddler finally unleashes the dancing skills of the ensemble in a roaringly jubilant “Get Me to the Church.”
Whitehead offers a dignified and sympathetic presence, and Robert Sella’s Freddy performs a wonderfully exuberant “On the Street Where You Live.”
This national touring company, which kicked off in April, is in L.A. for two weeks.
It plays the Orange County Performing Arts Center July 20-25, with plans to hit Broadway in the winter.
Errico is slated to resume the role of Eliza after recuperating from a recent operation.