By ALAN SMASON, Theatre Critic WYES-TV (“Steppin’ Out”)
The Jefferson Performing Arts Society (JPAS) realized the dream of its artistic director and maestro Dennis Assaf for a legitimate home stage with the opening of Lerner and Loewe’s “My Fair Lady” at the Jefferson Performing Arts Center this weekend.
While the state-of-the-art facility on Airline Drive is a fitting performance hall for national touring companies and other professional productions, one question remained to be answered. Could the level of Assaf’s local talent that had hitherto been confined to East Jefferson High School’s auditorium or the former Westwego Performing Arts Theatre measure up to such a grand hall?
The answer is a resounding yes.
With Micah Desonier in the leading role of flower girl Eliza Doolittle and Kris Shaw as the overbearing linguistics professor Henry Higgins, JPAS has crafted a sparkling gem of a show that is worthy of setting in any theater’s crown jewels of top performances.
Quite simply, Desonier’s singing soars in this production, ringing true and largely reminiscent of the rich tones first heard on stage in 1956 when a young Julie Andrews had the first turn at the role of the cockney girl who would be transformed into the toast of London. From one of the first scenes (“Wouldn’t It Be Loverly”) Desonier commands the rapt attention of the audience. She dances effortlessly, acts with authority and sings like an angel.
And to add to her her other charms, she lights up the stage with her beauty, even when she bears the rags of a common Covent Garden hawker of flowers with a face begrimed by the sooty streets of London. Later, when she dons more appropriate attire of worthy of a lady, her voice seems to soar ever higher in selections like “I Could Have Danced All Night” and “Show Me.”
While the role of Eliza shows the transformation of the common “guttersnipe” into a social butterfly, the role of Higgins is essential in showing his intractability and utter disregard for others he considers beneath his station. It is Higgins’ own hubris that causes him to take the bet with Colonel Pickering, played by Louis Dudoussat, that he can turn the deliciously lowly flower girl into a duchess by changing the manner of her speech.
But Shaw’s characterization of Higgins is also quite on the mark. While Rex Harrison, who originated the role on Broadway, the West End and on the silver screen, spoke many of his lines, Shaw truly sings his role at times with both delicate care and unfettered abandon. It is a difficult task to balance his brutish behavior towards Eliza and to engender admiration for him. Yet, Shaw does convey a capacity to change in the second act as the thought of losing his prize pupil looms large.
Also, of considerable worth on the bill is veteran musical leading man Jimmy Murphy (“Barnum”), who plays the role of Eliza’s ne’er do well father, Alfred P. Doolittle, a dustman with a questionable moral code. Two of the biggest numbers have Murphy square in the middle: “Little Bit of Luck” and “Get Me to the Church.” The latter number affords the best opportunity to see Lynne Bordelon’s very good choreography, which played out on the very large Jefferson Performing Arts Center stage.
Rounding out the cast is John Michael Haas, who portrays Freddy Eynsford-Hill. His one moment of glory, the brilliant “On the Street Where You Live” is reprised in the second act and his voice may have been big enough to carry in the auditorium without the aid of a microphone. The level of his final crescendo seems over the top. Indeed, the sound design by Curtis Fliegel is also very good, with the exception of the dropout of microphones at times for some of the ancillary players.
The luxury of such a large professional stage never before available to JPAS may have limited the scope of the scenic design by Kristin Blatchford, although in deference to Blatchford, one of the backdrops may have suffered a catastrophic tear just before the opening weekend. Nevertheless, the vastness of the new stage is a very large canvas on which to execute designs and it should be carefully considered especially for the upcoming productions of “Rigoletto,” “Sister Act” and “The Light in the Piazza.”
The beautiful harmonies from the ensemble evinced in the production’s “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?”, “Get Me to the Church” and “Little Bit of Luck” are to be credited to musical director Donna Clavijo and maestro Assaf, whose conducting of the JPAS Orchestra may be as perfect as the beautiful surroundings.
Also to be noted are the gorgeous costume designs executed by Robert Fletcher. His work and that of Don and Linda Guillot with wigs and makeup are simply superlative.
The task of turning George Bernard Shaw’s play and Gabriel Pascal’s film of “Pygmalion” into a musical by the writing team of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, both with Jewish backgrounds, is the stuff of Broadway legends. With a legal challenge from the MGM studio and no rights secured to Shaw’s work, Loewe, the composer, and Lerner, the lyricist and book writer, proceeded to cast the musical and run technical designs, betting their progress would eventually convince the Shaw and Pascal estates to award the rights to them. It not only worked, it set a Broadway record as the longest running musical in its time.
“My Fair Lady” runs Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at the Jefferson Performing Arts Center, 6400 Airline Drive. The closing performance will be Sunday at 2:00 p.m. For ticket information call 504-885-2000 or click here to purchase tickets online.