Friday, July 29, 2011

A hit and a miss at the Shaw Festival

Of all the shows at the Shaw Festival this season, and there are many recommendable shows, none is garnering more interest than the 50th Anniversary season celebration on the Festival stage of Lerner & Loewe's musical "My Fair Lady."  Everyone agrees it was about time this timeless musical, based of course on Shaw's play Pygmalion, made it to the Shaw Festival during this celebratory season; after seeing the show, you have to ask, "Lady, why did it take you so long?"

The musical version of Pygmalion, which premiered on Broadway in 1956, remains for me one of the most perfect of all examples of the golden age of the American Musical Theatre.  The book and lyrics of Alan Jay Lerner is perfectly married to the music of Frederick Loewe, resulting in a veritable cornucopia of classic songs almost everyone has heard before and yet, they have not aged one bit.  Who doesn't have memories of Julie Andrews' thrilling "I Could Have Danced All Night"; Rex Harrison's touching "I've Grown Accustomed to her Face" or Stanley Holloway's rollicking "With a Little Bit of Luck"?  They have all stood the test of time and remain standard musical theatre fare to this very day.

So how does the Shaw production measure up?  Well, in a word, wonderfully, thank you very much.  Oh, the Stratford Festival production of a few seasons back was a far more lavish affair, to be sure, but I think we have the superior cast here, and that makes for a very satisfying production overall.  The sets are, comparatively speaking, rather simple overall, and have trouble filling that cavernous stage, but the costumes spare no expense.  You won't so much be wowed by the sets in this production as feel comfortable with them.

The cast is huge and almost without exception very strong.  As Henry Higgins, Benedict Campbell is marvellous:  his singing is acceptable and he doesn't come off as quite a cad as he could when he shows disregard for Eliza after the ball.  As Eliza, Deborah Hay is amazing; her transformation from cockney flower girl to a cultured society woman is handled so effortlessly and with such skill it is simply breathtaking.  The only disappointment, I found, was Patrick Galligan's Colonel Pickering.  Galligan just seems to go over the top too often to make the character all that likeable, I found.

Supporting cast members are all strong, from Sherry Flett's Mrs. Higgins to Neil Barclay's Alfred Doolittle, on down the line.  The large cast never fails to impress with their ensemble work.

Director Molly Smith has crafted a very enjoyable revival of My Fair Lady, and it deserves the full houses it will garner through to the end of the season.  It plays at the Festival Theatre until October 30th and rates a very strong 3 out of 4 stars.

The second show at the Festival Theatre we'll examine here is a bit of an oddity by J.M. Barrie, The Admirable Crichton.  Not Admiral Crichton, as at least one newspaper erroneously reported recently.  Barrie is best known, of course, for Peter Pan, and there is some Peter Pan in this show that predates his popular classic by two years.  Crichton premiered in 1902 and Pan in 1904.  Like Peter Pan, a well-to-do English family is transported to another land; in this case an island when their ship goes down in the ocean.  They are left to fend for themselves as help never arrives, and those stiff-upper-lip English upper class folk gather round their servant, Crichton, to help them survive their ordeal.

It is a nice enough story, but not of the calibre Barrie later perfected with Peter Pan.  There is not much meat on them bones, as it were, and as a result the rather flimsy plot line means director Morris Panych has chosen to flesh it out and dress it up with some clever touches that bring a lot of music and humour to an otherwise mundane play.

The animal characters that string the play together, including The Wolf played by Billy Lake and The Crow played by Heather McGuigan bring much-needed comic relief at regular intervals, weaving the story together with music everyone will remember growing up with.  They are almost the stars of the show, really.  Panych has also chosen to add credits to the start of the show on a screen in front of the stage that works particularly well, as if we're watching an old movie.

The rest of the cast is good, considering what they have to work with here.  Steven Sutcliffe's Crichton is clever, gentle and never over-the-top, and David Schurmann's The Earl of Loam, the head of the English household stranded on the island, is good, if not particularly memorable.  Other cast members worthy of mention include Guy Bannerman as Mr. Tompsett; Gray Powell as Lord Brocklehurst; and Patty Jamieson as Mrs. Perkins.

The Admirable Crichton is a nice enough way to spend an evening at Shaw, but really, there are better alternatives for your theatre dollar at Shaw this season.  It continues to October 29th at the Festival Theatre and rates two out of four stars.

Incidentally, the pit orchestra for both shows includes a lot of local talent of note, including Doug Miller on flute and for My Fair Lady, Toronto's own Erica Goodman on harp.  Both orchestras sound great, by the way.  Oh, and the original soundtrack to My Fair Lady, with Julie Andrews, Rex Harrison and Stanley Holloway, is available through my website, A Web of Fine Music, and you can find it at

July 29th, 2011.                        

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