Chi’s little ‘Lady’

Revamp of a classic tuner wows crix

CHICAGO — New York may have just discovered the Chicago-honed talents of Mary Zimmerman of “Metamorphoses” and Greg Kotis of “Urinetown.” But that’s old news in the Windy City, where the buzz this spring has been all about two pianos, “My Fair Lady” and a fellow named Gary Griffin.

Griffin’s revisionist revival of the Lerner & Loewe tuner, which uses a cast of only eight actors, has received a raft of rave reviews. One respected longtime Chi critic, Jeff Rosen of Gay Chicago, declared the Court Theater Co. production to be the best show he’d ever seen in Chicago in some 30 years of theatergoing. Others may not have gone quite that far, but words like “masterpiece” have been banded about, and Griffin’s “My Fair Lady” is the odds-on favorite to take all the honors at the Joseph Jefferson Awards ceremony in November.

This is merely the latest in a long series of musical smashes for Griffin, an Illinois-born, Illinois-trained freelance director who works at nonprofits all over town. He’s carved out an interesting niche, pulling apart big tuners and then re-imagining them on a smaller scale by placing greater emphasis on character and nuance.

For all the ink devoted to the ongoing vibrancy of the Chi theater community, musicals have remained a weak spot. Local commercial players such as the Marriott Theater in Lincolnshire and the Drury Lane Theater in Oakbrook have decent reputations for reviving old musicals and producing them at a level comparable to the Paper Mill Playhouse and the Goodspeed Opera House, but unless we’re talking grungefests like “Urinetown,” few associate Chicago with the development of the musical, chamber or otherwise.

Although he’s still largely unknown outside Chicago, Griffin has been trying to change that. He got a flicker of national attention last summer with his arena-style revival of Stephen Sondheim’s rarely seen “Pacific Overtures” for the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, which used a racially diverse cast of only 10 men (instead of the original 19). Remarkably, Griffin managed to negotiate a sure course between parody and theatricalism on the one hand — and cultural veracity and political verisimilitude on the other. The result was a beguiling, fascinating show rooted in its epoch and Japanese geography, but full of sly surprises at every turn.

The concept got praise from out-of-town scribes and its composer, and it attracted a small contingent of Gotham producers, who were sniffing around town. But ultimately it went nowhere.

This latest “My Fair Lady” probably will suffer the same fate, given that Trevor Nunn’s huge London revival is on everyone’s agenda. Griffin’s production, though, could not be more different.

Employing a two-piano version of the score that was approved by Frederick Loewe back in the 1950s, Griffin’s version uses only 10 actors — Kate Fry and Kevin Gudahl are Ms. Doolittle and Mr. Higgins — and has minimal choreography.

It’s produced on a thrust stage in the intimate 345-seat Chicago Center for the Performing Arts, a new theater located just west of Michigan Avenue, which the Court rented for the occasion.

“We wanted to do a distilled version,” Griffin says. “We thought there might be an opportunity for the musical moments to reveal intimate events in the lives of the characters.”

The experiment, it’s widely agreed, has been very successful.

Remarkably fresh and revisionist, the show feels like “Pygmalion” with songs, rather than a separate Broadway concoction. Henry Higgins’ issues with sex and control over Eliza are thrown in sharper relief. And in a show where it feels like every piece of the musical was ripped apart and put back together, Shavian lucidity on issues of class, power and gender have never been clearer.

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