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Theater review: Studio Tenn’s ‘My Fair Lady’ Flawless until Finale

IMG_6830FRANKLIN, Tenn. – Nearly all of Studio Tenn’s My Fair Lady is wonderful (or “loverly” in the show’s lingo). But I have strong negative thoughts and feelings about the way the terrific troupe ends the final scene of this great Golden Age musical.

The Alan Jay Lerner – Frederick Loewe adaptation that used George Bernard Shaw’s brilliant 1912 play Pygmalion and its subsequent 1938 Gabriel Pascal-produced film version as the musical’s foundation has unquestionably been a jewel in the American theater crown since Rex Harrison, Julie Andrews, Stanley Holloway and company opened it on Broadway in 1956. And Studio Tenn’s artists and artisans have certainly crafted a mostly splendid presentation.

IMG_7296An Extraordinary Talent Pool (Onstage and Off)

The group’s bountifully talented Artistic Director Matt Logan is a triple-threat like no other in Franklin, Middle Tennessee or likely elsewhere – while offering us a poised yet poignant take on misogynistic phonetics professor Henry Higgins (and funny too, particularly in “A Hymn to Him”) he skillfully co-directs an ever-swirling flow of stage traffic with Kim Bretton (she is also responsible, in concert with the actors, for excellent English dialects) while providing exquisite designs (an ingenious all-in-one set with Technical Director Mitch White as well as incredibly detailed costumes, so perhaps he’s actually a quadruple-threat).

IMG_6339There are sure-fire performances from such stalwart talents as Matthew Carlton (who celebrated his birthday Saturday by giving audience members like myself the present of his thoroughly entertaining Alfie Doolittle – a shout-out to he and others in the ensemble along with Choreographer Emily Tello Speck for their supremely rousing rendition of “Get Me to the Church On Time” – along with various ensemble roles), Jeremy Childs (a wonderfully funny and appropriately tender-toward-Eliza Col. Pickering), Nan Gurley (chief among her multiple appearances is a very droll and perfectly-timed Mrs. Higgins) and David Compton (a delightfully silly-wicked Zoltan Karpathy among other sharply-formed characterizations). Marguerite Lowell makes the most (when doesn’t she?) out of dour housekeeper Mrs. Pearce and the positively fowl-like Mrs. Eynsford-Hill; in “On the Street Where You Live” and elsewhere Ross Bridgeman is utterly charming as Freddy Eynsford-Hill.

IMG_7387It’s a further mark of the extraordinary onstage talent pool that some of the show’s “small” parts are brought to vivid life by such gifted vets as Shelean Newman and Garris Wimmer; for both this is another superb credit in their lengthy resumes. The rest of the ensemble is just as A-1: Alex Rader (his tap solo in “With a Little Bit of Luck” is awesome), Blair Allison, Casey Hebbel, Tucker Hammock, Haley Henderson, Will Sevier and Anna Carroll all make sterling contributions.

IMG_6300And how does Laura Matula fare as Eliza? She’s brilliant in all aspects of her characterization. I’ve known that she was capable of such high-quality theater work since I saw her spectacular Miss Adelaide in Studio Tenn’s excellent revival of Guys and Dolls, but after hearing her rendition of “I Could Have Danced All Night” I have to make a very personal confession – may it be many years from now, but if I can just hear her angelic voice as I leave this life (and there are audio clips on her website so I should be set) I will die at peace. What a phenomenal vocal instrument she has – if you haven’t heard her sing, you must. Her acting is just as marvelous; Eliza’s fantastic transformation from Cockney flower girl to well-spoken lady requires an actor with more than just a gorgeous voice, and Matula’s skills in both departments are equally impressive.

IMG_6323The supporting elements of this production – from Sondra Nottingham’s wigs and makeup to Danny Northup’s sound design and Stephen Moss’s lights – are as usual as good as it gets (kudos to Stage Manager Sarah Melissa Hall and Production Supervisor Grace Anzelmo for all the strands they bring together). Add the musicians – Mike Casteel, Matt Davich, Toni Ferguson, Max Fulwider, Barry Green, John Ownby, Jocelyn Sprouse and Steve Emahiser – under the intuitive conducting of Music Director Stephen Kummer and this production is nearly flawless.

IMG_7527A Hollywood Ending Even Hollywood Didn’t Use

But the flaw is a large one since it’s the last moment we watch, and the one to which all previous moments in My Fair Lady build. I think this musical is probably so familiar to most (if not all) that might read this that I’m not concerned here with the unwritten rule that critics shouldn’t discuss the end of a show in their reviews. If you don’t want Studio Tenn’s precise finish spoiled in any way, though, just stop reading now.

IMG_6648Why am I going to focus so much of this review on that last moment, which sees Higgins and Eliza clutched in a passionate embrace as they kiss? Though it speaks to the story’s ultimate resolution that’s not my biggest reason for expounding on the matter far more than many may think appropriate or necessary; I ask those reading this to have patience and keep an open mind. Obviously no one has to agree with me; all I ask is that readers not dismiss the following simply because they disagree or dislike what I write. Studio Tenn puts great thought and care into all they do; I will do no less in explaining my objection.

IMG_7510First some background: The ambiguous finale to Pygmalion has gone through more than one revision since the play was first produced in 1912; Shaw changed it in subsequent published versions of his script, but the creator of Higgins and others maintained in a 1916 “sequel” epilogue that Eliza married Freddy. He began that epilogue with these words:

“The rest of the story need not be shown in action, and indeed, would hardly need telling if our imaginations were not so enfeebled by their lazy dependence on the ready-makes and reach-me-downs of the ragshop in which Romance keeps its stock of “happy endings” to misfit all stories.”

IMG_7440Shaw supposedly agreed with reluctance to alter the last scene for the 1938 film version so that Leslie Howard’s Higgins utters the words “Where the devil are my slippers, Eliza?” after Wendy Hiller’s Eliza reenters his study. That didn’t mean he’d abandoned the idea that Freddy and Eliza get hitched afterward, though – in a 1939 Reynolds News interview he took exception to a journalist’s notion that he’d allowed the movie to have a happy ending:

“I did not. I cannot conceive a less happy ending to the story of Pygmalion than a love affair between the middle-aged, middle class professor, a confirmed old bachelor with a mother-fixation, and a flower girl of 18. Nothing of the kind was emphasized in my scenario, where I emphasized the escape of Eliza from the tyranny of Higgins by a quite natural love affair with Freddy. But I cannot at my age (he was 83 at the time) undertake studio work: and about 20 directors seem to have turned up there and spent their time trying to sidetrack me and Mr. Gabriel Pascal, who does really know chalk from cheese. They devised a scene to give a lovelorn complexion at the end to Mr. Leslie Howard: but it is too inconclusive to be worth making a fuss about.”

IMG_7043It’s safe to say that Lerner wasn’t so sure that Eliza and Freddy end up as husband and wife. In a note for the published libretto of My Fair Lady Lerner wrote the following:

“I have omitted the sequel because in it Shaw explains how Eliza ends not with Higgins but with Freddy and – Shaw and Heaven forgive me! – I am not certain he is right.”

IMG_6321Lerner’s original stage directions also clearly indicate which way he leaned, though they stop short of a full embrace (figuratively and literally) of the notion that Higgins and Eliza are now a romantic couple:

ELIZA

(Gently) I washed my face and hands before I come, I did.

(HIGGINS straightens up. If he could but let himself, his face would radiate unmistakable relief and joy. If he could but let himself, he would run to her. Instead, he leans back with a contented sigh pushing his hat forward till it almost covers his face)

HIGGINS

(Softly) Eliza? Where the devil are my slippers?

(There are tears in ELIZA’s eyes. She understands)

The curtain falls slowly

IMG_6726So, in the musical as originally written (and staged by director Moss Hart) as well as the 1964 film version of the musical starring Harrison and Audrey Hepburn helmed by George Cukor, the action essentially ended once that line was uttered. But Studio Tenn has decided to furnish the kind of pat-and-happy Hollywood ending that even Hollywood didn’t use instead of a finish that retains a degree of intriguing ambiguity.

The mountain of background provided points up the strong arguments creatives and audiences have for favoring one concluding scenario over another and leads to my conclusion: I think it’s just as valid preferring to see love bloom between Higgins and Eliza as it is to feel Shaw’s desire for the union of Freddy and Eliza should be honored. But in ending their show with a very passionate embrace and kiss between the professor and his former student Studio Tenn no longer gives each of us the option to decide which path we think Eliza will take (not to mention coming up with possible variations on those routes in our imaginations).

IMG_3558Perhaps Studio Tenn’s ensemble feels artists reserve the right to make such a choice; I won’t argue with those that feel they do, but in this instance I wish Studio Tenn had refrained from exercising that prerogative. To accept this otherwise terrific show in its entirety theatergoers have to accept what happens at the very end. This presentation’s patrons should be able to decide the ultimate destination of My Fair Lady for themselves instead of having it forced on them in the finale.

MyFairLadyStudio Tenn’s My Fair Lady continues through June 2 at the Franklin Theatre (419 Main St.) with performances at 7 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays; 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Saturdays; and 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets ($47.50-$57.50) are available by visiting www.franklintheatre.com or calling (615) 538-2076. For more information on Studio Tenn go to www.studiotenn.com.

 

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IMG_7408*Photos by ANTHONYMATULA courtesy Studio Tenn.

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About Evans Donnell

Evans Donnell is the chief theater, film and opera critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He wrote reviews and features about theater, opera and classical music for The Tennessean from 2002 to 2011. He was the theater, film and opera critic for ArtNowNashville.com from 2011 to 2012. Donnell has also contributed to The Sondheim Review, Back Stage, The City Paper (Nashville), the Nashville Banner, The (Bowling Green, Ky.) Daily News and several other publications since beginning his professional journalism career in 1985 with The Lebanon (Tenn.) Democrat. He was selected as a fellow for the 2004 National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, and for National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) arts journalism institutes for theater and musical theater at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in 2006 and classical music and opera at the Columbia University School of Journalism in 2009. He has also been an actor (member of Actors Equity Association and SAG-AFTRA), founding and running AthensSouth Theatre from 1996 to 2001 and appearing in Milos Forman's "The People vs Larry Flynt" among other credits. Donnell is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association (www.americantheatrecritics.org).

Comments

  1. Insightful review. The decision by Studio Tenn to provide the audience with an ending to a classic work that, in its original form, typically allows the audience to speculate is symptomatic of much of art these days. Nuance no longer has appeal. Everything is all defined according to the whim of whoever produces the work. All is in your face, wrapped up, and delivered. Nuance, the imagination, that magical wonderment that has kept the great works alive through generations, is–I regret–no longer commercially viable.