Simon Jones, Michael Cumpsty, and Kate Fry in My Fair Lady(Photo © T. Charles Erickson)
Simon Jones, Michael Cumpsty, and Kate Fry in My Fair Lady
(Photo © T. Charles Erickson)
In taking on the classic Alan Jay Lerner- Frederick Loewe musical My Fair Lady, director Gary Griffin has done an excellent job in many respects. He's cast almost ideal performers in the lead roles: Michael Cumpsty is the stalwart phoneticist Henry Higgins; Kate Fry is Eliza Doolittle, the Cockney flower girl whom he teaches to speak proper English. The two-piano arrangement that Griffin is using, assembled by original dance arranger Trude Rittman, proves to be a good way of reducing the original orchestrations. The cast -- which also includes Simon Jones as Colonel Pickering, Michael McCarty as Alfred P. Doolittle, Jane Connell as Mrs. Higgins, Jim Stanek as Freddy Eynsford-Hill, and Patricia Kilgarriff as Mrs. Pearce -- never feels too small. As a whole, the production effectively tells the story in a way that makes you really care about the characters.

I'm not particularly fond of John Culbert's unit set, which looks like it could also be used for a stripped-down Grand Hotel, but it serves the material well enough. Nan Cibula-Jenkins's costumes are appropriate but not in the slightest bit showy or extravagant -- you're unlikely to forget Cecil Beaton's unparalleled original work -- and Chris Binder's lighting is fine. In fact, had Griffin -- who scored major successes with the recent New York City Center Encores! productions of The New Moon and Pardon My English -- merely chosen to take My Fair Lady and present it with two pianos and a 10-person cast, there would be no problem. But while there is much that's right about this production at the Roger S. Berlind Theatre at the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, to leave the matter there would be to tell only half the story -- and that would be a disservice to anyone expecting to see the show that Lerner and Loewe actually wrote.

With this revisal, Griffin offers further evidence -- assuming more is necessary -- that nothing is sacred in the world of musical theater. Any show by any writers can and will be poked, prodded, and manipulated to death in favor of a new "interpretation." What I've never understood -- and what has never been satisfactorily explained to me -- is why new interpretations of musicals always seem to require modifying the material. As the musicalization of George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion won many awards, has been performed all over the world, was made into a spectacular film, and is widely considered a masterwork -- if not the masterwork -- of the American musical theater, wouldn't it stand to reason that it's well written?

Yet Griffin -- apparently under the impression that the original work is flawed -- has instituted edits and alterations so copious that they border on outright rewriting. The cutting of the overture and the brief street buskers scene, while unfortunate, are perhaps understandable. Higgins's establishing number, "Why Can't the English," never finishes: it just stops, evidently to squelch applause. The dance music for one of musical theater's most famous numbers, "The Rain in Spain," has been excised entirely. Eliza hums -- but does not sing -- half of the second verse of the gorgeous ballad "I Could Have Danced All Night."

Michael Cumpsty and Kate Fry in My Fair Lady(Photo © T. Charles Erickson)
Michael Cumpsty and Kate Fry in My Fair Lady
(Photo © T. Charles Erickson)
Some songs have been reconfigured into "musical scenes," with dialogue from surrounding scenes moved into the songs themselves. In no case are these changes improvements; "Just You Wait" and "Ascot Gavotte," which traditionally contain some of the show's funniest moments, are stretched almost humorlessly thin. At one point, this senseless meddling even renders the plot incomprehensible: Parts of the embassy ball sequence (the true first act finale) have been moved into the second-act opener "You Did It"; the last scene of the first act is now the scene, in which Eliza makes her grand appearance before the ball. That scene was originally set in Higgins's home prior to Higgins, Eliza, and Pickering leaving for the ball, but now it apparently takes place at the ball; one is left to assume that Eliza changed into her most formal of dresses once she got there. (What she wore on the trip to the ball, or what happened with the clothes she changed out of, is never addressed.)

Perhaps all of this shouldn't be surprising, given Griffin's director's notes in the program. The first paragraph reads:

The original Broadway musical version of My Fair Lady took Shaw's Pygmalion and expanded it at a time when there was a demand for music-theater to be presented in a certain way. Pygmalion was a play with 12 people. The question for Lerner and Loewe was, "how can we get a chorus into that?" If you were writing My Fair Lady today you'd never ask that. What people love most are those musical moments that viscerally capture a character's pain, or joy, or desperation. It's not just size and dimension that people want in a musical.

If, as Griffin seems to be surmising, Lerner and Loewe didn't really know what they were doing, are his changes acceptable? Perhaps they will be to some people (including the show's licensing agent, Tams-Witmark), but those expecting to see My Fair Lady might find the alterations considerably harder to take. This is all the more frustrating because, when the production is actually using rather than changing the text, it works beautifully and serves to remind you what a fine, funny, and moving show this can be. The cast is terrific -- Connell is my personal favorite and even the usually repressible Jeff Edgerton did well in his overworked chorus role -- and Griffin's ideas about the show are in no way weak. But the text he's working from isn't really My Fair Lady. I'd love to see him tackle that musical.