Monday, 16 December 2013

My Fair Lady at the Chatelet Theatre, Paris

My Fair Lady at the Chatelet Theatre
My Fair Lady, the musical comedy by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe is a fascinatingly multi-layered work and Robert Carsen's production at the Chatelet Theatre in Paris emphasised this. (A revival of the 2010 production which was a collaboration with the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg where the production was presented in 2011). We caught the performance at the Chatelet Theatre on Saturday December 14 2013. There was a predominantly British cast (Katherine Manley as Eliza, Alex Jennings as Professor Higgins, Nicholas le Prevost as Colonel Pickering, Donald Maxwell as Alfred P. Doolittle, Caroline Blakiston as Mrs Higgins, Ed Lyon as Freddy Eynsford-Hill and Lee Delong as Mrs Pearce) in a production directed by a Canadian, Robert Carsen, with designs by Tim Hatley (British), with an American conductor, Jeremy Rhorer, French chorus and orchestra, the Choeur du Chatelet and Orchestre Pasdeloup, in a work inspired by a Greek myth, based on a play written by an Irish playwright, Bernard Shaw, for an English audience which in turn went on to inspire an American musical.

One of my main reasons for attending the performance was that production use the original orchestrations by Robert Russell Bennett (revised by Philip J. Lang), giving the opportunity to hear a classic American musical with Robert Russell Bennett's full orchestral scoring rather than the smaller pit band common to most productions in London's West End.

Hatley's set consisted of a pale, off-white neo-classical portico behind which appeared the frontage of the Covent Garden Opera House, Covent Garden market and Professor Higgins' double-height library, all in shades of cream. The set was flexible, but some of the scene changes required scenes to be played in from of an act drop, which was inscribed with the Latin motto mea pulchra puella.

The Chatelet Theatre is, in size, akin to some of the bigger West End Theatres and equipped with a full size pit, this makes it ideal for a musical like My Fair Lady. I honestly cannot imagine it being performed in a bigger space.

Discreet amplification was used, but not overly so (after all many of the singers would have been able to fill the space unaided). There was certainly no sense of opera singers being over amplified, nor was there a feeling that this was a musical turned into opera. But it is worth remembering that My Fair Lady premiered in 1956, before the modern trend for throat mikes and wholesale amplification in musical theatre.

Alex Jennings was a great surprise as Professor Higgins, displaying a useful voice and quite comfortable with slipping between, speech, fully sung and sprech-stimme in a role famously created by the non-singing Rex Harrison. More importantly, Jennings was clearly comfortable with his singing voice, and so was subtly expressive with it as with the spoken passages. Lerner and Loewe's Professor Higgins is rather softer edged than Shaw's, the addition of music makes him a bit more understandable and lovable. Jennings wasn't the bad tempered ogre that some actors make him, he was a charming if rough edged egotist with a delightful awareness of his failings and a tendency not to take anything seriously. Both I'm an Ordinary Man and A Hymn to Him were brilliantly done, full of lovely verbal dexterity and wit.

Katherine Manley made a delightful Eliza, full of charm and character. Like all the other Cockneys on stage, her accent owed more to stage conventions than realism. But she created a marvellously strong willed and entrancing character, delivering the dialogue with an easy naturalism which gave the lie to the difficulties of casting opera singers in acting roles. Musically Manley had clearly been listening to recordings of Julie Andrews (Andrews created the part on Broadway). Julie Andrews is no bad role model and this meant that Manley gave us a beautifully modulated performance. Wouldn't It Be Loverly was finely touching and Just You Wait had a rather poignant edge to it. Eliza is a role for a singing actress; there is a lot of dialogue. Manley was a total triumph, and her transformation was entrancing. Her relationship with Jennings's Higgins fairly crackled.

Freddy only gets one song, On the Street Where You Live, and he doesn't get even the girl in the end. Ed Lyon made him a bit of a silly ass, which worked surprisingly well from a dramaturgical sense but did make you wonder about Eliza's taste in men. Lyon sang his solo rather beautifully, shaping the melody with care and giving the song the attention it deserves. In the act two duet between Lyon and Manley where Lyon's On the Street Where You Live nicely complemented Manley's Show me, I felt that their relationship did not quite crackle enough and I could have wished that Manley had had more edge here.

The production, with its ball scene, elegant Ascot ladies and amazing dancing Cockneys, clearly took the George Cukor film as one of its inspirations. Shaw's play does not have a ball scene, nor does it have a chorus of Cockneys. The Cockneys in Lerner and Loewe's musical are clearly creatures of the musical theatre Cockaigne rather than realistic. But I have to confess that such scenes still make me a little queasy. Cockney accents in particular were well modulated and very much 'stage Cockney'. But then, if the cast had spoken with authentic accents perhaps the French-speaking audience would not have followed them. No language coach was credited.

Donald Maxwell's Alfred Doolittle was delightfully bumptious, one of Maxwell's brilliant comic creations. He dealt with the songs with aplomb, but he was a very well spoken Doolittle.

The remaining roles are all essentially spoken, though Nicholas Le Prevost's Colonel Pickering did join in one number. Le Prevost made a superb foil for Jennings and showed Jenning's Higgins up by an impeccable show of manners.

Lee Delong was a personable and expressive Mrs Pearce, able to convey much with a simple expression or raising of an eyebrow. Caroline Blakiston was a poised and soignee Mrs Higgins. This brings us to another feature of the production, the time travelling nature of the costumes.

Professor Higgins was firmly in the Edwardian era, the Cockneys rather less so. When cleaned up, Eliza's outfit rather rather post First World War, but the Ascot costumes were rather 1920's. Eliza's ball gown was very 1920's and the later scenes in Mrs Higgins' drawing room were similarly placed. The final scene, saw Eliza re-configuring and redecorating Professor Higgins's library and bringing him out of his era into the 1920's or 1930's. So that different characters points of view were made apparent by the era of their clothes.

Lynne Page's choreography was confident and imaginative, with the big production numbers erupting all over the stage as is needed. The production used a chorus of 20 and 14 dancers. The English language seemed to challenge the chorus somewhat, there were stray diphthongs galore but the results were entirely creditable

Under Jayce Ogren's direction the orchestra gave a lively and idiomatic performance. The overture had one or two rough moments, but then things settled down admirably and it was a great treat to hear the songs and choruses in such finely full orchestrations. My Fair Lady has no big finale, instead there is the orchestral playout for the bows, which takes its place. Here, rather oddly, the bows were taken in silence with the playout performed as the audience left the theatre.

The production has quite a long run at the Chatelet Theatre and the cast has clearly been assembled to ensure that things run smoothly. The distinguished Wagnerian bass Phillip Joll was playing the second Cockney and sharing the role of Alfred Doolittle, Simon Butteriss was third Cockney as well as over acting brilliantly as Zoltan Karpathy. This level of casting ensured that such moments as Eliza's Wouldn't It Be Loverly, saw Manley backed very finely by the four Cockneys of Ross Barnes, Phillip Joll, Simon Butteriss and Philip James Glenister.

The production was given with French surtitles, but the majority of the audience were clearly following the English dialogue and laughing at the jokes. Higgins and Pickering's anti-foreigner, anti-French sentiments caused a particular laugh.

Our attendance at My Fair Lady was, to some extent, spur of the moment given that we were in Paris anyway. But the show was a great delight and Robert Carsen's production (which, when new, was the first time the piece was done in Paris) was totally entrancing.

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