Lavish and loverly: The Naples Players present ‘My Fair Lady’
The news that two theaters in Naples, just blocks away from each other, would present the same show in the same season was initially met with consternation. But theatergoers — and the venues themselves — need not have worried.
Gulfshore Playhouse (an Equity theater) and The Naples Players (a community theater) gave audiences two completely different experiences with their productions of Lerner and Loewe’s beloved “My Fair Lady.”
Gulfshore Playhouse staged an innovative, minimalist production late last year. Ten actors played all the roles, and two pianists, one on each side of the state, provided all of the accompaniment.
The Naples Players take a more traditional approach for their rendition. It’s a big, lavish celebration of the classic musical with full sets, a cast of 32 and a 13-piece orchestra in the pit.
Elizabeth Marcantonio as Eliza Doolittle makes a highly believable transformation from a lower-class girl selling flowers on the streets to “a proper lady.” You see the light going on in her brain when she finally grasps how to say, “The rain in Spain falls mainly in the plane” properly. And when she attends her first ball, she looks like a princess. (Kudos to costume designer Mary Wallace.)
David Whalley is perfect as Col. Pickering, who enters into a bet with Professor Henry Higgins who claims he can transform “a common girl” into someone who can pass as royalty. The colonel’s kindness is a balm, and possibly the thing that transforms Eliza more than Professor Higgins’ relentless phonetic exercises.
Dave Gipson excels as the professor. I’d initially thought it odd casting, but it’s possibly Mr. Gipson’s best role on the Sugden Community Theatre stage. His Professor Higgins is a character you love to hate: a bully, a tyrant, egotistical and arrogant to the extreme. He possesses an inflated view of himself and doesn’t see his own shortcomings at all, insisting that he’s a reasonable man, even-tempered, when he’s obviously not. You love to see him get his comeuppance.
Mary Jane Disco, making her Naples Players debut as his mother, Mrs. Higgins, does such a terrific job. I wish her role were bigger. The actress received well-deserved exit applause in one of her scenes and I can’t wait to see her onstage again.
And Brad Brenner as Alfred Doolittle, Eliza’s father, puts in a solid performance as the silver-tongued drunkard who suddenly finds himself elevated to the middle class. His two songs, “With a Little Bit of Luck” and “Get Me to the Church On Time” are joyous, full-out numbers that rock the house. However, there were times when I wish he’d sacrificed accuracy of accent for clarity; it was sometimes difficult to decipher his extremely thick accent, especially when his character’s slurring his words due to drunkenness.
Also of note: Frank Scott Davis as Freddy Eynesford-Hill. His lovesick young man who swoons about in front of Professor Higgins’ house in hopes of catching a glimpse of Eliza delivers a sweet version of “On the Street Where You Live.”
Charles Fornara’s orchestra is superb accompaniment and doesn’t overwhelm the singers at all. He’s done an excellent job with all the singers — leads and ensemble members alike. The harmonizing at times is exquisite.
Director and choreographer Dawn Lebrecht Fornara keeps this musical moving along, though it clocks in at almost three hours (typical of musicals of its era). Yet, the show never drags, thanks to staging and choreography so well done you have to keep reminding yourself these are not professional actors on stage. Ms. Fornara has single-handedly brought these local actors light years ahead of where they were just a few years ago, especially as dancers. Todd Potter’s two-level set of the professor’s study is filled with books and gramophone recording devices, an environment worthy of a man who buries himself in his work.
“My Fair Lady” is a much-loved play, and tickets to this production are selling quickly.
But watching it with a 21st century mentality can be a frustrating experience at times. The men are so misogynistic, especially Professor Higgins and Mr. Doolittle. The professor sees Eliza as merely an experiment and doesn’t take her feelings into consideration, or even recognize that she has any. And both he and her father make comments about beating her or taking off a belt and whipping her into submission.
The professor infantilizes Eliza, yet turns around and wonders why she can’t be more like an equal, “more like a man.” He’s just an insufferable grump, an overgrown child.
You get to feeling she’d be better off without him … and possibly, after the musical ends, you hope she has the wherewithal to leave him for good.
Still, “My Fair Lady” is an interesting study in transformation, how knowledge and the kindness of others can change us for the better. Both Eliza and her father realize they can never return to the people they once were; they’ve changed too much, they know too much now.
Whether Professor Higgins has also been transformed remains to be seen. His big 11 o’clock number, “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face,” is not exactly a ringing declaration of love. What woman would be thrilled to be told, “I’m used to having you around”? It seems he still views their relationship in terms of how it affects him, how it will benefit him. He might have been temporarily humbled by Eliza’s leaving, but he still has a lot to learn.
“My Fair Lady” is not only about gender relations but a look at class differences, too. The same people who think so little of Eliza when she’s a poor girl peddling flowers esteem her when they think she’s a member of high society or even possibly royalty.
If you want to see “My Fair Lady” with a full cast and orchestration, this production is just your cup of tea. ¦
‘My Fair Lady’
>> Who: The Naples Players
>> When: Through April 2
>> Where: The Sugden Community Theatre
>> Cost: $40
>> Info: 263-7990 or www.naplesplayers.org