Monday 19 July 2021

Real intimacy: Lerner & Loewe's My Fair Lady in a concert staging at The Grange Festival

The Grange Festival : My Fair Lady

Lerner and Loewe My Fair Lady; Ellie Laugharne, Steven Pacey, Peter Polycarpou, dir: Guy Unsworth, cond: Alfronso Casado Trigo, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra; The Grange Festival

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 19 July 2021 Star rating: 4.5 (★★★★½)
A concert staging of Lerner and Loewe's 'perfect musical' which combined high musical values with engaging imagination in presentation

Lerner and Lowe's My Fair Lady is a strange musical, there are few proper dance numbers, the big song and dance pieces being quite limited, and for all the American creators desires to open Bernard Shaw's play up somewhat, the ghost of Pygmalion (written in 1912 and receiving its UK premiere in 1914 with Mrs Patrick Campbell and Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree) hangs over the entire enterprise. The result gives the piece a slightly more acerbic quality than many American musicals, to its great benefit. The sense that for all that it is a Broadway Musical, there is still something of the chamber piece with its series of intimate dialogues in drawing rooms, means that presenting My Fair Lady as a concert staging works rather better than many other 1950s American musicals, and has the big advantage that we do not have to suffer the amazing dancing Cockneys.

The Grange Festival presented Lerner and Loewe's My Fair Lady in a concert staging directed by Guy Unsworth with Alfonso Casado Trigo conducting the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra gloriously live on stage and playing the orchestrations by Robert Russell Bennett and Philip J Lang (if any musical needs to have a full orchestra it is surely this one). Ellie Laugharne played Eliza with Steven Pacey as Henry Higgins, Peter Polycarpou as Doolittle, Susie Blake as Mrs Higgins / Mrs Pearce / Cockney Woman, Richard Suart as Colonel Pickering and Nadim Naaman as Freddy Eynsford-Hill.

The orchestra spread out at the rear of the stage, with cast and chorus sitting in front. Cast members were in concert dress but were off the book, and there was an acting area at the front over the pit. The book was slightly edited (no ball scene, some characters missing) but we got a very full version musically. The cast was a mixture of the operatic (Laugharne and Suart) and those from spoken and musical theatre. 

Alfonso Casado Trigo and orchestra played the overture with zest, relishing perhaps both playing to an audience and being full visible for once. Casado Trigo's experience has been largely with modern musicals Les Miserables, Miss Saigon and Phantom of the Opera, but he he clearly has sympathy with this older generation of large-scale musical experience.

From the first notes of Eliza's wail when her flower-stall is knocked over, it was clear the Ellie Laugharne's flower girl was a wondrous creation. I have no idea how accurate her demotic was (the dialect coach was Anna-Maria Speed) but in a theatrical situation it worked well and more importantly, this Eliza was a living, breathing being, strong minded and with an element of determination. 'Wouldn't it be loverly' was finely sung and well judged, not being hammed up too much and the male-voice trio accompanying from the chorus were a complete delight. Laugharne managed to deftly suggest the fragility of Eliza's early success, pronouncing everything with a careful correctness, whilst 'Just you wait' was almost hissed with quiet intensity rather than shouted, and 'I could have danced' suggested perhaps she had been listening to Julie Andrews (the first Eliza on Broadway and in London).  In Act Two, this Eliza grew up and whilst the ending was the musical's familiar 'happy end' with Eliza returning (something that Shaw always decried, his 1916 publication of the play included an essay as to why an Eliza / Higgins marriage would be impossible), there was a questioning sense too.

How would we view the role of Higgins today if Noel Coward (the producers' first choice) had sung the role on Broadway. Would he have sung it rather than spoken it? Rex Harrison's speech-song is so closely associated with the role that few, if any, Higgins would actually fully sing all the songs. Steven Pacey proved to have a useful, quite soft-grained baritone voice and in his songs he deftly moved between speech and song, and something in between. His performance took a little time to take, perhaps this Higgins was less sharp, less acerbic than some but he was still that selfish, self-absorbed clever-fool that makes the role such a joy. Pacey made us care for him, and developed a clear relationship with Laugharne's Eliza, though again this was perhaps more soft-grained than in some productions. 'A Hymn to Him' had a strong element of humour, whilst his final 'I've grown accustomed to her face' was sadly melancholy.

Peter Polycarpou's performance as Doolittle was a masterclass in holding the stage. The Ascot-scene apart, his are the big song and dance numbers, but here there were no dancers and the chorus remained stationary, yet Polycarpou managed to hold the stage with wit, imagination and some very deft footwork. His philosopher dustman was a delightful creation, demotic but not too gratingly Cockney, deft with words and a zest to the staging of his numbers, which had a brilliance to them yet this never felt like the Peter Polycarpou show, it was part of the greater fabric. 

Nadim Naaman managed to bring a sense of personality to the small but important role of Freddy, making 'On the street where you live' count whilst giving good support in Eliza's 'Show me'. Richard Suart was a delightful Colonel Pickering, an important spoken role but with some key sung elements. Suart made a great foil to Pacey's Higgins, a neat double act. Susie Blake popped up in three roles, each deftly sketched in, with Blake showing a devastating sense of Shaw / Lerner's one-liners whether as Mrs Pearce or Mrs Higgins.

The hard-working chorus of seven managed to suggest much whilst remaining stationery. Making a virtue of necessity, they brought a lovely chamber intimacy to the unaccompanied chorus moments, and throughout I found myself enjoying their contribution as being finely musical.

This was the sort of concert presentation where I hardly missed the larger-scale elements of staging at all. By placing the acting area over the pit, the cast was thrust somewhat into the auditorium and though it was miked there was a real sense of the intimacy of this theatre (where Grange Park Opera even experimented with performing musicals without amplification). This was an engaging and balanced cast, the mix of opera and music-theatre blending to create a sense of ensemble. 

Cast, production and conductor are travelling to Barcelona where two performances are being given at the Liceu in Barcelona (with the chorus and orchestra of the Liceu), the work's first performance at the Liceu. See the theatre's website.

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