Can a big Broadway musical be squeezed onto the small stage of the Rubicon Theatre and still retain the essence of its appeal? The company’s 2009 production of Fiddler on the Roof showed it’s possible, but its current staging of My Fair Lady is an awfully tight fit. Superb performances by the two lead actors –along with the eternal freshness of the material – make the staging an enjoyable one, but one can seldom shake the feeling that this is a show in a corset. Too often, it doesn’t have room to breathe.
Under the direction of James O’Neil, Joseph Fuqua and Kimberly Hessler give wonderfully nuanced performances. Professor Henry Higgins, the linguistic genius who takes in the “guttersnipe” Eliza Doolittle and vows to pass her off as a member of the upper class, is utterly insufferable in many ways. But Fuqua keeps him sympathetic by playing him as an adolescent who has failed to grow up. His frequent bafflement feels completely honest, and his tantrums when things don’t go his way clearly reflect immaturity, not malice. As misogynists go, he’s winningly vulnerable.
As the lower-class girl who learns to speak proper English, Kimberly Hessler gives a similarly complex portrayal. Her Eliza is playful yet determined, full of natural exuberance tempered by a strong will. Hessler’s showcase solo numbers, such as the revenge fantasy “Just You Wait” and the joyous “I Could Have Danced All Night,” are extremely winning. As Eliza’s shiftless father, Patrick deSantis hits all the right notes, but he’s performing the colorful role rather than living it. The standout among the supporting cast is Susan Denaker as Higgins’ mother, who brings a dry wit to the long-suffering character.
The show moves swiftly, which is important considering its nearly three-hour running time. Duo pianists Lloyd Cooper and Chris Kimbler do such a fine job with Frederick Loewe’s sublime score that the usual orchestra is barely missed. Thomas Giamario’s minimalist set, dominated by an imposing staircase, is also surprisingly effective. Marcy Froehlich’s Victorian-era costumes are, however, a bit too understated. When Eliza, ready to “come out” to high society, presents herself in her ball gown, the moment should elicit gasps of delight; the effect here is disappointingly diluted.
More problematic still is Carolanne Marano’s choreography, an apparent attempt to mimic the steps of the original 1956 Broadway production. Bad idea. Confined to a tiny stage, the performers could do little but strike clichéd poses and move about in circles. It would have been better to rethink the dance numbers entirely, and come up with steps that actually worked in this physical environment.
So, a mixed bag. Rubicon gets points for ambition, but one leaves thinking the company would have done better keeping this same cast and staging the non-musical play My Fair Lady was based on, George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion. More Shaw on our local stages – now that would be loverly.
My Fair Lady runs Wednesdays through Sundays through Nov. 15 at the Rubicon Theatre, 1006 E. Main St., Ventura. Tickets are $35 to $64. Information: (805) 667-2900, or www.rubicontheatre.org.