Unlikely female characters were a theme in Houston theater last week, especially with Theatre Under the Stars' season opener, My Fair Lady. The lyricist/composer team of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe adapted the musical from G.B. Shaw's Pygmalion in 1956, a half-decade after the playwright's death, thereby circumventing Shaw's distaste for dampening the social bite of his play by adding showy production numbers. Lerner and Loewe succeeded in writing a memorable score, but My Fair Lady has only a breath of the class war relevance found in Pygmalion, and thus a good deal less substance.
TUTS is selling this production as an "updated version" of the musical, but the updates are hard, if not impossible, to find. While it's not reasonable to expect the 1950s to have produced a female protagonist with even a mildly feminist consciousness, this production, following Shaw's premise of the crusty speech professor Henry Higgins wagering he can transform a Covent Garden flower girl into a proper lady, celebrates the script's misogyny. Despite the lovely songs and an inspiringly funny performance from Clive Revill as Alfred P. Doolittle, our girl Eliza's father, the enduring message of the production is that Eliza wins the attention of rich eligible men by dressing well and conversing pleasantly.
Where this production of My Fair Lady fails most, though, is in convincing the audience that the fresh Lee Merrill as Eliza could possibly fall for the doddering Noel Harrison as Professor Higgins. There's a definite call for chemistry to overcome such nasty Higgins lines as "She's so deliciously low" and "She's a soiled cabbage leaf." Even if the audience accepts Harrison's unrelenting crustiness (a genuine, if not particularly endearing, reading of the character), the largest emotional gift his character offers Eliza is the measly "I've Become Accustomed to Her Face." Now what kind of girl could pass that compliment up?
Actually, the girl to pass that kind of compliment up is indeed Merrill, who plays an unwavering, if frustrated, Eliza. There's never a connection on her side of the love equation either, and the revelatory "I Could Have Danced All Night" plays more like an epiphany for learning proper enunciation than it does a song about falling in love. In a balanced production it could do both; in director Sidney Berger's production, it only succeeds marginally as the first.
Luckily, Revill lightens things up with his rakish performance as Eliza's father. Big and lively, Revill is the sort of character actor who keeps a production going, and he seems to delight even his fellow actors with his disdain for middle class morality. One of the high points in the show is Revill's rich baritone in the lamentably funny "Get Me to the Church on Time."
There are a few ways a clever director could reinvent My Fair Lady, but none of them happen with TUTS' version. Unfortunately, what should soar in the purest of revivals only putts along here, and there's never any hope that anything deeper than pretty pictures and fine singing will surface in this professionally dull production.
Speed-the-Plow plays through November 3 at Actors Theatre, 2506 South Boulevard, 529-6606.
My Fair Lady plays through October 27 at the Music Hall, 810 Bagby, 622-