My Fair Lady had its world premiere at the Shubert Theater 58 years ago this month. In a recent production, Yale Musical Theater of the Air brought the show back to its historic birthplace.
The musical returned Saturday for a one-day-only run at the theater at 247 College St. Yale Musical Theater of the Air, a predominantly undergraduate troupe, does live concert versions of famous musicals, with a full orchestra, a full chorus and celebrity Yale alumni in the lead roles. The “of the Air” part of the title comes from how the company uses tricks from the golden age of radio theater to make live sound effects. For instance, when a character’s supposed to sound as if they’re on the telephone, they speak into a coffee can to achieve the appropriate echoing sound.
These are grand events, with over six dozen performers on stage. The lead players stand in front of music stands, and read from scripts, but they have studied the roles carefully and even wear basic costumes. A 16-member chorus of Yale students fill in the small roles, and warble en masse for the splashiest numbers. Behind the actors is the entire orchestra.
Last year the Yale Musical Theater of the Air presented Cole Porter’s Kiss Me Kate, which was notable for two things: an immaculate and highly entertaining reconstruction of the show’s original score (reviewed here), published that year as the “critical edition” of the show; and performer Christopher Durang falling and injuring his knee during the final verse of “Brush Up Your Shakespeare,” delaying the show for 20 minutes and causing him to miss the evening performance (covered here).
This year’s production, of Lerner & Loewe’s hit musical adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s My Fair Lady, had no such high or low moment. There was not a painstakingly recreated score to tout (though songs and dialogue often cut from the show for time limitations were proudly included here). Nobody got hurt. And the show chosen to be concertized wasn’t anything shockingly innovative or in need of reappraisal—it’s just a very, very entertaining musical.
Reg Rogers, who graduated from the Yale School of Drama in 1993, and has a string of impressive theater film credits to his name, played Henry Higgins, the linguistics specialist who makes a bet that he can pass off a cockney flower girl for a society lady mainly by changing her speech patterns. This wasn’t Rogers’ first time on the Shubert stage; the raspy-voiced comic actor had been there in a pre-Broadway tour of the Neil Simon comedy Proposals in 1997. (Rogers’ most recent Connecticut appearance was at Westport Country Playhouse last summer in Carly Mensch’s new play Oblivion.) With his trademark tousled, hair and Snagglepuss speaking voice, Rogers made the role his own. At age 40, he also was the appropriate age for the character, since her mother (played here by the accomplished actress Pamela Gray) is described as being in her 60s. The original and best-known Henry Higgins, Rex Harrison, was 48 when he originated the role and 56 when he starred in the film version.
The role of Liza Doolittle, the Galatea to Higgins’ Pygmalion, went to Felicia Ricci, a 2008 Yale College grad who was in the L.A. company of the hit musical Wicked. Cute and round-faced, Ricci gave the role a warm friskiness. Liza’s father Alfred P. Doolittle was none other than David Alan Grier, the In Living Color and Chocolate News TV star who got a Tony nomination just last year for playing Sportin’ Life in the controversial update The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess. Grier, who attended the Yale School of Drama in the late 1970s (and barely mentioned that fact in his 2009 autobiography) gave this comic relief character a gruff, no-nonsense exterior and sang his songs—“A Little Bit of Luck” and “I’m Getting Married in the Morning”—with gospel-singer depth. Songs like this are usually accompanied by wild dance numbers. Grier barely had room behind his music stand to do a do-si-do step with the guy singing next to him.
Higgins’ associate Colonel Pickering was blond, dashing ’82 Yale grad Hans Tester—the Swissair pilot in the movie Argo and Udo in the series Royal Pains. Freddy Hill, the moony-eyed young man who falls so hard for Liza that he can’t stop walking along “The Street Where You Live” was played by a current Yale sophomore, Jeremy Weiss.
You need strong, confident actors, plus a sizable chorus of perky undergrads, to withstand the orchestral onslaught of four dozen onstage musicians. Modern theater orchestras, especially the kind which tour the Shubert these days, are bare-bones affairs, a handful of players bolstered by synthesizers and samples. It’s dazzling to hear such a large ensemble play such a classic score.
The actors were indeed able to command the stage despite the lack of scenery, memorized dialogue or space to move around. At one point, when she needed to lower her microphone stand, Ricci improvised a cockney apology: “Ay’ll jus’ a’just this ‘ere.” There was lots of “loverly” harmonizing and whistling from the expansive chorus.
Rogers, in a brown sweater-vest and brown jacket and red tie under that wildly waving mop of hair, nailed his solo numbers in a manner that made Henry Higgins both funny and human. For their part, the orchestra stood up, section by section, to accent the growing instrumental frenzy of “Get Me to the Church on Time.”
Concert versions like this can be as hard to stage as full productions. They must be immediate and nostalgic at once. They must have clarity and momentum even without props and set changes. They must be comprehensive, yet keep people’s attention for a longer period of time than today’s musicals do. This one ran three hours, quite a long length considering the time that gets shaved off by not having it fully staged. (They didn’t used to call the third act showstoppers “11 o’clock numbers” for nothing).
The Yale Musical Theater of the Air productions are clearly labors of love for director Marc Vietor and producer Amber Edwards. (The music director/conductor this year was David Loud.) Moving the enterprise from the Yale University Theater (where Kiss Me, Kate happened last year) to the Shubert didn’t seem to broaden the audience much—this was very much a Yalie crowd, there to cheer on their classmates and forebears. But it did add an historical perspective. How on earth did they used to fit such big casts onto the Shubert stage 50 or 60 years ago? How did they move musicals in and out for half-week try-out runs in New Haven? How did audiences respond to My Fair Lady when hearing these now-classic songs for the very first time?
Probably as smoothly and cheerily and generously as they did on Saturday.