Inside Signature Theatre's small space across Four Mile Run, director Eric Schaeffer has given us priceless memories with his productions of "Cabaret," "Passion," "The Fix," "Floyd Collins," "Side Show," "Follies" and "110 in the Shade." Delays in construction of the new Signature Theatre in Shirlington have given us a few more, courtesy of Schaeffer's staging on "My Fair Lady," running through Nov. 19.
It's a show that seemed a strange choice — a war horse considered by many as such a perfectly constructed musical that there would not be much for a director to add. Yet in downsizing the show to fit his constricted confines, Schaeffer finds ways to make this story of a misogynistic linguist and his flower girl fresh and frequently satisfying.
The show had a cast of 48 when it first appeared on Broadway in 1956; the director manages to tell the full tale with a cast of 19 including a fabulous pair in the two leading roles.
Andrew Long — well-known locally as a dramatic actor, but not necessarily a musical theater star — makes a superb Professor Henry Higgins. He sings the role beautifully where singing is called for (particularly in those lovely lines that hint at the romantic lurking just under the surface of his character) and he speaks the patter lines with a clarity and confidence that is highly satisfying without being an imitation of the original, Rex Harrison, for whom the role was written.
Sally Murphy just finished a run on Broadway as Tevye's daughter Tzeitel in "Fiddler on the Roof," another of the great musicals of Broadway's Golden Age. Here, she shines as Eliza, the cockney flower girl who wants to learn to speak well enough to get a proper job in a shop, or even pass as a lady. She is particularly good on the anger songs "Just You Wait" and "Without You."
Among the Signature regulars who turn in fine performances are Will Gartshore whose tenor voice soars in "On The Street Where You Live," Steven Cupo and Thomas Adrian Simpson as Eliza's father's drinking buddies, and Dana Krueger who gets every one of the laughs written into the script for Higgins' disapproving mother.
Harry Winter is charming and believable in a role that many an actor has stumbled over, that of Higgins' friend, the linguist Colonel Pickering. He is simply the best Pickering this reviewer has ever seen.
A newcomer to Signature, but no stranger to local stages, is Terrance P. Currier who takes on the role of Eliza's hard-drinking father. The role calls for the talents of a veteran of music hall song and dance numbers, but Currier's background is in non-musical roles and he doesn't have the flair to pull it off.
THE PRODUCTION IS generally a handsome one in the old 136-seat, intimate black box theater on South Four Mile Run Drive, but it is damaged by a number of artistic choices that seem to be designed to make the production different — not better. Chief among them are the costumes for the men in the chorus when they are either household staff or the gentlemen at the ball — their frock coats have no sleeves and their bare arms look positively silly.
Signature has filled this hall with the sound of small orchestras for many impressive musicals, including an incredible ensemble of 14 for Stephen Sondheim's "Follies" a few years ago. Just why, then, they decided to go with a two-piano accompaniment for this production is a mystery.
It results in a weak sound at some of the times (an anemic middle section of "Get Me To The Church On Time" for example) and a drowning out of a few vocalists at others.
Still, "My Fair Lady" is one of the half-dozen or so masterpieces of the American musical theater and its strengths of lyrics, music, characterization, plotting, intelligence, humor and romance are undimmed by the occasional misstep.
Brad Hathaway reviews theater in Virginia, Washington and Maryland as well as Broadway, and edits Potomac Stages, a Web site covering theater in the region (www.PotomacStages.com). He can be reached at Brad@PotomacStages.com.