Many decades have passed since I had the pleasure of playing Henry Higgins in our high school production of George Bernard Shaw’s classic comedy, Pygmalion. I could not have guessed then that I would one day be honored with membership in The Lambs Club. It was there, many years earlier, that two gentlemen named Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe had honed their skills as composers before producing the legendary Broadway musical, My Fair Lady, which was based on Shaw’s play. I had only once before had the opportunity to review that musical, but the Masquerade Theatre finally gave me another chance with its sparkling recent revival in the Zilkha Hall of the Houston Hobby Center theater complex.
The familiar plot centers around a poor cockney flower girl in London by the name of Eliza Doolittle. The girl is taken into the home of the pompous Professor Henry Higgins (Luther Chakurian), a phonetics scholar who believes he can pass her off as a proper lady by simply teaching her how to speak in the proper fashion of the upper class. Director, Phillip Duggins, had chosen his Eliza well with the selection of Kristina Sullivan. In many ways Sullivan was central to the success of the production, most especially by virtue of her superb voice for classic songs like the whimsical, “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly,” the proud and haughty, “Just You Wait,” the sharp-edged, “Without You,” and her memorable performance of a sublime, “I Could Have Danced All Night.”
Meanwhile, Higgins has support from his friend Colonel Pickering (Adam W. Delka) in the effort to transform Eliza into a member of the aristocracy. Much of the action takes place in Higgins’ library, and the scenic design of Amanda McBee was quite handsome. As Eliza makes a long-sought breakthrough in correct enunciation, the two gents joyfully join her in celebrating the success with a cheerful trio of, “The Rain In Spain.” Chakurian and Delka do well as these two partners trying to transform Eliza, though Mr. Delka did a bit too much unnecessary shuffling about, in an apparent effort to age his character. Chakurian does well overall as the eccentric Higgins, but he sometimes raced through Shaw’s wittiest lines too quickly to be clearly heard. Nevertheless his fine voice and pacing were clearly on display as he sang, “I’m An Ordinary Man.”
Adding to the best of the production were the fine support vocals of the energetic ensemble of household servants in aforementioned numbers like, “Just You Wait,” and “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly.” (The latter was beautifully reprised in Act Two with Eliza smoothly joined by the Cockney men’s chorus). The show’s choreography (designers, Laura Babbitt & Michelle Macicek) was somewhat lackluster and uneven, with a good deal of stomping around in numbers that seemed to be crowded into a strangely small area toward the front of the stage. Much more successful was the wonderful Ascot Race scene when Higgins attempts to present Eliza to polite society. With a hilarious performance from Miss Sullivan, it was beautifully staged with perfect snobbery for the aloof upper class attending the race, and deliciously extravagant black & white costumes and hats from designer, Libby Evans. That number was a knockout enhanced by bright lighting from designer, David Gipson.
While on the subject of lighting allow me to backtrack a bit and quarrel with the show’s dimly lit opening scene where the participants first meet among the crowd in front of the opera house. The scene seemed somehow unfocused as it was suddenly thrust at the audience without the anticipated delights of the show’s wonderful Overture ever being performed by the modest 6-member orchestra. (Musical Director, Michael J. Ross, Conductor, Dominique Røyem). This did not put the show on a solid footing at the outset. Other puzzles included the apparent omission of the pivotal scene in which Eliza is presented to a queen at the grand ball and scrutinized by a suspicious Hungarian phonetician. (While we never see the ball, her sparkling ball gown was a pip!) Perhaps Masquerade’s edition had been heavily edited due to the play’s considerable length, which could at times seem overlong and tedious when not rescued by the lush musical score.
In the role of Eliza’s trash-collector father, Alfred Doolittle, Dominic Abney was amusing at times, but Abney seemed too intent on manufacturing a gruff and gravely voice for Eliza’s conniving alcholic father. Some of his best lines flew by too quickly to be appreciated, but rousing songs like, “With a Little Bit of Luck,” and “I’m Getting Married in the Morning,” are always fun to hear, even if choppy choreography does not rise to the occasion. And speaking of fun, I cannot fail to mention the scene where Eliza tells the hilarious tale of her aunt who died of influenza. Sullivan’s flair for comedy is exceeded only by her silken voice.
Another silken voice was that of young newcomer to Masquerade, Cole Ryden. In the role of Eliza’s eager suitor, Freddy Eynsford Hill, his very natural and glowing delivery of the lovely song, “On the Street Where You Live,” lit up the room and was an exceptional moment in the show. If I know anything about star quality, this beaming lad and his soaring voice should be an important addition to future productions of the Masquerade family.