Anyone who follows my theater reviews knows there is one kind of theater I like more than all the others. It’s not the plays of Shakespeare, Chekhov, Oscar Wilde, Tom Stoppard or Hanoch Levin. It is the musical, that (mostly) American contribution to the theater. And of all the musicals, the one I like best (no, maybe that’s not accurate; the one I know best) is “My Fair Lady.”
The original play, about Henry Higgins, the phonetics professor whose personal caprices are both admirable and awful, and Eliza Doolittle, the flower girl from London's Covent Garden whom he transforms into a lady, was written by George Bernard Shaw, an Irish theater and music critic who became a playwright - roughly a century ago. He named his play “Pygmalion,” after the Greek sculptor of classical mythology who fell in love with the statue of a woman he had sculpted out of ivory. When he prayed to Aphrodite, the goddess of love, for a wife “like his ivory maiden,” she granted his true, unspoken wish and turned his statue into a human woman whom he named Galatea.
Gabriel Pascal, the Hungarian film producer and director, persuaded Shaw - who did not like what the cinema did with his plays - to entrust him with exclusive screen rights to his work. In 1938, Pascal convinced the celebrities of London to invest in a film based on the "Pygmalion" story. He was also the one who came up with the line “The rain in Spain stays mainly on the plain.”
As time went by, Shaw became an admirer of Pascal - mainly because Pascal did not hesitate to invest money (which usually did not belong to him) in the arts. But not even Pascal could persuade Shaw to consent to having his play turned into a musical. Convinced that there was enough music in his words, Shaw did not want additional tunes.
It was only after Shaw’s death in 1950 that the plot of the play and film became available as a potential musical. After the greats of that genre passed on Shaw’s play, saying it was beyond their abilities, the challenge was taken up by lyricist and librettist Alan Jay Lerner, who also wrote the book (the musical's dialogue and song lyrics), and Frederick Loewe, who composed the music. They began writing even though they did not yet have the rights, casting Rex Harrison as Prof. Higgins and Julie Andrews as Eliza. The resulting musical, which debuted on Broadway in 1956, broke all commercial records for musical theater up to that point and was considered the perfect musical.
I came into the picture a few years later, as a child who loved theater and music in early 1960s Israel. The record of the musical reached Israel and our home, and from listening to it so often I learned all the English lyrics by heart. When Giora Godik produced a Hebrew version of the musical with Shaike Ophir and the newly discovered young singer Rivka Raz in the leading roles, I convinced my parents to see it with me several times. I was privileged to meet Ophir at the home of my parents’ friends and hear him tell how he would say to himself: “Rex, stop breathing down my neck” during rehearsals. Of course, I bought the record of the Hebrew version, which I still know by heart.
More than any other musical, “My Fair Lady” does not leave much room for “interpretation.” A new production can bring a new Higgins, a new Eliza and Alfred P. Doolittle to the stage, but that is about as much innovation as there can be.
There are some accepted guidelines here. Higgins has to be a well-known masculine stage personality. Eliza usually should be a new discovery, as Andrews was in her day and as Rivka Raz, Rita (who appeared as Eliza in Moshe Yosef’s 1986 production, with Oded Teomi as Higgins) and Mira Awad (in 2002, with Oded Kotler) were in theirs. Andrews, Raz, Rita and Awad were first of all singers, and their vocal quality was a highly significant attribute, together with their dramatic abilities.
Now we come to the 2013 version of “My Fair Lady.” Here, too, the flower girl who's transformed into a lady is a fairly new name in theater, but Shani Cohen is well-known not as a singer but as a comedian on the television program "Eretz Nehederet" ("A Wonderful Country"). From this perspective, she was a natural casting choice for the first half of the musical. Cohen is a natural as the Cinderella-like Eliza, just as Audrey Hepburn was in the film as Eliza the lady. It is certainly possible – and this is a legitimate consideration - that Cohen was chosen for the role because of her comic reputation and the fact that she is a well-known television personality.
From my perspective, it is not enough to be acceptable or even perfectly acceptable for the role (and Cohen is indeed perfectly acceptable). This particular part demands "star quality," and it must be, first and foremost, a singing star. Audrey Hepburn was “acceptable” as a singer (one can get an impression of her singing abilities from the Internet), but the film’s producers wanted a better voice, so Marni Nixon provided the vocals in the film. Cohen is not a singer. It is not that she cannot sing; she sings very well, but her singing performance lacks brilliance.
To tell the truth, there are quite a few highlights in this production under Moshe Kepten’s lively direction. Henry Higgins, as played by Nathan Dattner, is brutal, decisive, speak-sings his clever lyrics very well, and emphasizes the character’s childish side. It is a delight to see Dov Reiser appear beside him as Col. Pickering, even if he "hams it up" a bit too much, and Pini Kidron as Alfred P. Doolittle creates one of his best roles.
Miriam Gavrieli also excels as Mrs. Higgins, the professor’s mother, as does Shlomi Bertonov as "that dreadful Hungarian" Zoltan Karpathy. Adam Lahav, the only professional singer in this production, plays Freddy Eynsford-Hill. The choreography by Avichai Hacham - a relatively new name on the Israeli stage - is impressive and almost the only place where there is a bit of room for artistic license in this tight framework. Yelena Kelrich’s costumes also deserve a positive mention, as does the lovely, simple and sophisticated scenery designed by Eran Atzmon.
Which brings me to the production’s weakest point, which for me sabotaged all its good ones. This is, after all, a musical, and if the musical side of things is lacking, then in my eyes the whole thing falls short. It’s true that, in general, Israeli musical performances tend to be amplified without any sense of proportion, but to my ears this production broke several records. I understand that some of the musical accompaniment was recorded and some performed live, and that the orchestra and musical director Yossi Ben Nun were behind the scenes, but it can’t be that in a work whose music is so subtle and meticulous, the orchestra’s performance and amplification thunders, as if “fortissimo” is the only dynamic notation it knows.
So what’s the bottom line? It’s definitely not bad, but still not good enough. But that doesn’t mean that, despite everything, I didn’t enjoy myself. Someone who read the short version of my critique, in which I expressed the same reservations that I’ve detailed here, claimed not to believe me. “You’re writing nonsense! I saw you in row 18 humming every word,” he wrote in an online comment. And it’s true. I hummed. That’s what I do at every musical I watch, which doesn’t necessarily reflect on the quality of the performance. It’s a failing of mine. But I do try to hum quietly, so as not to disturb the sleep of other members of the audience.
"My Fair Lady" is in repertoire at the Habima Theater, Tel Aviv