When Alan Jay Lerner (book and lyrics) and Frederick Loewe (music) teamed up to turn George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion” into a musical, they added their own genius to the playwright’s. The result was a musical for all time that grew even more illustrious when it was made into a movie. The film, one of the most beloved of all movie musicals, won eight Academy Awards, including best picture, best director (George Cukor) and a richly deserved best actor honor for Rex Harrison, who epitomized the iconoclastic snob as Henry Higgins.
Sacramento’s Music Circus has offered the musical eleven times in its 62-year history, most recently in 2008, when we compared it favorably to the best productions of any musicals by the company. Unfortunately, the attempt to repeat that magic in last week’s production of the classic fell far short of that high mark in almost every respect.
It wasn’t so much that this Glenn Casale directed effort was bad, because it certainly wasn’t. But it also wasn’t inspired or particularly invigorating. Save for a slightly different approach to the closing scene (which we did appreciate), nothing in the production reflected much in the way of creative imagination or boldness.
Instead, scenes that could have produced considerable laughter only evoked smiles, and musical numbers that could have engendered long ovations only resulted in mild applause. Most of the blame for this lackluster production must rest on the shoulders of Mr. Casale, who as the long-standing artistic director of the company, certainly knows how to stage musicals in the round and has more than his share of very successful productions in that venue (the now twelve-year-old Wells Fargo Pavilion) to his credit.
But, for whatever reason, Mr. Casale repeatedly missed opportunities to make the wonders of “Lady” resonate with his audience in this production. One example, in comparison to the 2008 production, will suffice. In the Ascot races number, Marcia Milgrom Dodge (who directed in ’08) used the rotating stage to capture the juxtaposition of the gorgeous costumes worn by the upper crust British with the subdued and controlled “excitement” the bluebloods exhibit. It was a highlight of that production.
But in last week’s production, the rotating stage was not used (nor were the elevated tiers every employed). Thus the actors had to move around the stage during the race, which really destroyed the whole idea of the number (since they are supposed to be ever so restrained in the interest in the race). The sound effect of the horses’ hooves was also more muted than we remember from the ’08 production. The result was a scene that was more filler than highlight, notwithstanding the lovely costumes (designed by Marcy Froelich) and wigs (designed by Jill Lane) that the female members of the ensemble displayed.
Still, it’s hard not to completely dislike any production of this great musical, if only because of the many great songs it contains. Even in the absence of imaginative staging, it’s still something of a reward in and of itself to hear those songs sung by actors who sing them well. Happily, in last week’s production, the actors did sing reasonably well.
The cast was led by Paul Schoeffler (as Henry Higgins) and Glory Crampton (as Eliza Doolittle). Mr. Schoeffler didn’t attempt to speak-sing most of his singing (as Mr. Harrison famously did in the movie), but his baritone was more than adequate to convey the sense of arrogance and immodesty on “Why Can’t the English,” “I’m an Ordinary Man” and “Hymn to Him.” And he also did a nice job with “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face,” albeit that number was oddly staged so that he sang most of it from an aisle, rather than on the main stage.
Ms. Crampton has a nice mezzo-soprano voice that worked well on most of her solos. She seemed less comfortable with the comical “Just You Wait” and the playful “Show Me” than she was with the upbeat “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly.” That number was one of the highlights of the production, as was “I Could Have Danced All Night,” on which Mary Jo Mecca, as Mrs. Pierce, offered strong support.
Eliza’s father, played by Stephen Berger, gets two of the show’s biggest numbers (“With a Little Bit of Luck” and “Get Me to the Church on Time”). For both, Mr. Berger sang and played his role effectively, but, again, the staging of each was less exciting than it could have been so that the encore in the aisles for “Luck” seemed forced and redundant. Mr. Berger did get the loudest applause at the end of the performance we saw.
Jason Forbach, as Freddy (Eliza’s heartfelt admirer), was less successful in his singing. He has a nice tenor voice, but it didn’t capture the lilting quality of “On the Street Where You Live” in either of the two times he sang it. William Parry (Colonel Pickering) enlivened two other big production numbers (“The Rain in Spain” and “You Did It”), and held his own as Mr. Schloeffler’s straight man for the rest of his time on stage.
Rounding out the cast with unremarkable performances were Toni Sawyer as Henry’s mother (she did get the most laughs for her few lines) and Shannon Stoeke as the linguist/extortionist Zoltan Karpathy. The sixteen member ensemble was fine, but they had too little to do, largely because of the lackluster choreography provided by the usually reliable Bob Richards. And the 14-piece orchestra played well under the direction of Craig Barna.
Some of these names are familiar to long-time fans of Music Circus productions, making this first show of the year perhaps even more disappointing than it was.